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The Disappearance of the Compassionate Conservatives

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I would never have been mistaken as a political supporter of President George W. Bush. But in his early days as president, I was invited to have conversations with him and his team about faith-based initiatives aimed at overcoming poverty, shoring up international aid and development for the most vulnerable, and supporting critical agendas such as international adoptions of marginalized children and the broken domestic foster care system.

My invitations to the Bush White House ended when I strongly and publicly opposed the Iraq War. But I continued to support the administration's efforts to combat poverty and disease, especially Bush's leadership in combating HIV/AIDs, malaria, and massive hunger in the poorest places in Africa.

That agenda was called "compassionate conservatism" and I was grateful for it. Back then, Republican leaders could be fiscally conservative, favor "small government," and believe in the free market, for example, but also believe that government should and must partner with the private sector -- especially non-profit and faith-based organizations -- to help lift people out of poverty, both abroad in the developing world and here at home in the richest nation on the planet. Such a conviction requires two things: A genuine empathy and commitment to the poor, and a more balanced and positive view of government -- neither of which were much evident in the GOP's right-wing quarters, where the compassionate conservative agenda was opposed by party leaders such as Tom DeLay and Dick Armey.

I met people like Mike Gerson, who was then George Bush's chief speech writer and a policy advisor, and is now a columnist for The Washington Post. I was told it was Gerson and the Bush himself who often were the ones to stand up for the compassionate conservative vision at Oval Office meetings.

Gerson and I have talked and worked together since he left the White House, and convened something called the Poverty Forum that brought together policy experts from across the ideological spectrum to propose common-sense steps to reduce poverty. The project produced a surprising level of agreement, as participants focused on practical solutions, instead of ideology.

I saw Mike last week, at a reception that Bono and his ONE Campaign hosted for World Aids Day on Dec. 1. Earlier in the day, three U.S. presidents -- Obama, Bush, and Clinton -- had spoken at a televised gathering to celebrate the real successes achieved over the last 30 years in the battle to end the scourge of AIDS and to commit to finishing the job.

Mike must be feeling a bit beleaguered these days as the compassionate conservative agenda has virtually disappeared from the Republican Party. The common ground those like him once fought for has all but disappeared. Still, those like Gerson are holding a critical space. And that's important for evangelicals concerned about the "least of these," whom Jesus talked so much about. (Mike is a graduate of the evangelical Wheaton College.)

Most of the progress we have or will make on poverty comes when making a difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable people is seen as a non-partisan issue and a bi-partisan cause, as the battle against AIDS had been. In a Dec. 1 World AIDS Day op-ed in The New York Times, Bono himself celebrated that success and gave shout-outs to people as diverse as evangelicals and the gay community, Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum (to date the only GOP presidential candidate to voice support for poverty-focused foreign aid in the debates), and ideological foes such as Nancy Pelosi and Jesse Helms!

The victories that have been won in the global battle against AIDS are the result of the efforts of everybody -- Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of no particular religious predilection alike -- and most big gains for the poor will require support from both sides of the political aisle.

Today Rick Perry condemns government help for the poor while encouraging churches to help out-- but his most recent tax records show that he only gave one one-thousandth of what he made to his church. When he made $1 million, his total church giving was less than $100.

Herman Cain empathetically said that if people didn't have jobs, it was just their own damn fault.

Michele Bachmann, who regularly touts her evangelical credentials, was the first to attack Newt Gingrich for suggesting the country adopt a "humane" immigration policy.

And what about the GOP frontrunners? Mitt Romney has had little to say about compassion for the poor and marginalized. When asked about poverty-focused foreign aid his answer was to let China take care of it.

Last week, Gingrich said that America's poor children, who live in the poorest places in the nation, have never worked or even been around anybody who has worked.

Such a harsh and alarming comment doesn't show any understanding, empathy, or experience with poverty, low-income working parents, and how life feels at the bottom when people at the top keep calling you lazy. Nor did they demonstrate any knowledge of the facts -- that three-quarters of those living below the poverty line actually have jobs, actually do work, but don't make enough to support a family.

And it also didn't help to see Gingrich the next day in New York City with Donald Trump -- a man who flaunts his wealth, his sexual philandering, and his skyscrapers that are dwarfed only by his out-sized ego that gives arrogance a bad name.

Newt and Donald together announced their solution to child poverty: Trump sponsored "apprenticeships" for 10 "wonderful children" from those poorest places who would work for The Donald and then succeed, 10 at a time.

Newt even suggested that those same "wonderful children" could replace the unionized janitors at their own schools.

The incident seemed more like a scene from one of Trump's reality shows than a hallmark moment for a Republican who might have hoped to be called a compassionate conservative. Ever.

Worse yet, Trump and Gingrich looked like two peas in a pod.

Still, the compassionate conservative space is vital to the health of the nation and the future of the poor, and therefore preserving it is essential. Republicans returning to it might further open up the space for the kind of bi-partisan cooperation we have had before and now desperately need.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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