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Jewish World Review July 26, 2000 / 23 Tamuz, 5760

Don Feder

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Who needs issues?
Bush got compassion

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ONCE IT WAS ENOUGH for Americans to be led by presidents who were competent, honorable and committed to the cause of justice. Today, voters demand political lovemaking. They want to be assured that a candidate cares deeply about all of society's victims. They need to be smothered in a syrupy rhetorical embrace.

An article in last week's New York Times noted that Gov. George W. Bush's campaign appearances are staged to showcase his concern. "The evening news programs show Mr. Bush surrounded by winsome minority children or troubled teens or poor but determined single mothers talking of hopes for building a better life."

He is the very model of a "compassionate conservative" who will rally "the armies of compassion." Is he running for president of the United States or head of the Salvation Army?

Not to be outdone, Vice President Al Gore spent last week succoring victims of violent crime. Better he should stop sniping at the admirable implementation of the death penalty in Texas.

An unnamed Bush adviser concedes in the Times piece that the strategy is to craft the governor's image as a political philanthropist.

The aide confided that swing voters "are not taking their stands (for a candidate) on individual issues, but their feelings about what values the candidate reflects."

That is to say, vaguely defined positions set in saccharine campaign events are windows on a candidate's soul that give voters the ability to determine if he has the emotional equipment for the job.

Try to imagine Teddy Roosevelt telling voters he felt their pain. During his famous whistle-stop tour in the 1948 presidential campaign, Harry Truman told the crowds that he was on their side because he was one of them. He didn't profess to be their surrogate daddy, overflowing with paternal affection.

In his book "Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge," Bruce Thornton explains our compassion obsession. "Like sensitivity," Thornton writes, "displays of compassion are desirable because they cheaply endow a person with moral superiority. They show he is a lover of humanity, a foe of unfairness, and an enemy of those benighted villains who cause this suffering."

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There is no better example of cut-rate compassion of the lip-service variety than the man who currently occupies the address Bush covets. Bill Clinton can cry on cue and is quicker with a hug than Oprah Winfrey comforting a recovering whatever.

There are those who detect hypocrisy here. On the contrary, I've always assumed that Clinton's compassion wasn't a pose, but a sad attempt to compensate for his deeply flawed character.

In two elections, we fell for the pain-feeling. We got an administration that barbecued some harmless wackos in Waco, got real cozy with Beijing (a regime renowned for its oppression), and sent a 6-year-old back to a slave state.

After seven years of this slobbering sideshow, you'd think that voters would, in the words of Ronald Reagan, have had it up the keister with political compassion. But, no. Now as much as in 1992 and 1996, it's bring on the hankies and hugs, pour the tea and serve the sympathy.

There are two problems with political compassion. First, despite Bush's volunteerist gloss, it usually works to the benefit of big government. Compassion is more easily demonstrated in appropriations for public programs (welfare, housing, prescription-drug coverage) than in, say, proposals to give tax breaks to churches involved in the work of human reclamation, which actually have a better chance of success.

Too, they are a distraction. Other than a few tax-cut proposals and a very modest and limited education-vouchers plan that the candidate never talks about any more, we still have only the haziest idea of Bush's agenda -- assuming he actually has one.

Bush seems to be running merely to govern. Like his father before him, he thinks it would be swell to be president. Cynically or not, his camp has decided that issues are an obstacle, and that the key to victory is making voters feel good about the governor by parading his feelings.

Compassion Tour 2000 will end in Philadelphia (appropriately, the City of Brotherly Love) next week with an empathy orgy to dull the senses and churn the stomach.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. To comment on this column click here.


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