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.