NOT COMPASSIONATE, NOT EVEN CONSERVATIVE….WHAT’S LEFT?….The DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute released a pretty devastating report today that examines the promises of Bush’s “compassionate conservative” agenda and finds nothing there. It’s worth a read.

It fits nicely with my article in our October issue on the political sham that is Bush’s faith-based initiative. It’s a pretty safe bet that Bush will toss out a reference to this policy in tonight’s debate, but very few viewers will understand that this “compassionate conservative” program doesn’t work and, in fact, wasn’t even set up to work:

Bush alone is responsible for supporting the distribution of taxpayer dollars without requiring proof that the funding produces results, for establishing a new government bureaucracy to give special help to a “discriminated” community that has always been on equal footing with everyone else, and for encouraging religious organizations to rely on government funding instead of encouraging private donations.

The main purpose of the faith-based initiative has been to beef up a rhetorical strategy that Bush has used to great effect with evangelicals. Ignoring the fact that the White House, Department of Justice, House of Representatives–just to name a few–are all headed by evangelicals, he appeals to the community as a persecuted minority that has been discriminated against by government. Take a look at his acceptance speech. The only time he mentioned the faith-based initiative was in this context: “Because religious charities provide a safety net of mercy and compassion, our government must never discriminate against them.”

The government never did, but that’s beside the point. Bush is their hero, he saved from from persecution. Uniter, not a divider? This is the ultimate “It’s us versus them” rhetoric. And it’s the main reason the White House inserted a provision into their faith-based bill that would allow religious organizations to discriminate in hiring. A majority of senators and representatives support allowing religious organizations to apply for social service grants, provided they abide by the laws that govern all other providers. The White House knew this provision would destroy that consensus, but that hardly mattered. Because the fight over hiring fit into the narrative, it allowed Bush once again to say, “See? They want to be able to tell you what to do.”

Now, it’s tempting to respond to all of this with a yawn and a “So the Bush administration is promoting a misleading political sham. What’s new?” Don’t let outrage fatigue get you down. Things like this matter. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone tick off the list of things on which they disagree with Bush before concluding, “But I’m going to vote for him anyway because he’s a good religious man.” As John Kerry (or the New Testament writer James) might say: What good is it if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds?

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Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.