Fellow Republicans have taken to sniping at Texas Gov. George W. Bush's slogan, "compassionate conservatism." Maybe such political turns of phrase ought to be regarded with skepticism in the age of "spin." But these particular words, coming from the chief executive of the second-largest state and the GOP's undeclared front-runner for 2000, deserve more than a quick dismissal.
The Bush slogan touches on a theme played by other advocates of such bedrock elements of conservatism as smaller government and lower taxes. The '96 Republican vice- presidential candidate, Jack Kemp, built a political career on the proposition that a committed fiscal conservative could be intensely interested in the problems of the urban poor. His efforts to move public-housing tenants toward home ownership was just one example of that approach.
Governor Bush's compassionate conservatism is aimed largely at Texas's huge Hispanic population. He goes out of his way to keep in touch with that community, to support its entrepreneurial energies and its desire for better education.
Credentials in such areas are going to be increasingly important for candidates in a demographically changing America. The political gravitation is toward leaner government that still advocates fairness and wider opportunity for all. This centrist ground is not always easy to stake out, given the polarizing dynamics within both major parties.
Bill Clinton has done it with considerable success, which partly explains his continued high performance ratings. You might call the president a "lean-government liberal."
Republicans who want to reclaim the presidency will have to compete on similar turf. Hard-edged conservatism is a tough sell nationally. The politician who can argue, convincingly, for a congruence of conservatism and compassion could be a strong competitor.