Paul Ryan Outlines the New "Compassionate Conservatism"

“Compassionate conservatism” is making a comeback. Those words may not excite Republicans who have come to view them as an artful cipher for the contradiction in terms known as “big government conservatism.” But it is absolutely necessary in a political culture that has allowed Democrats to use the terms “compassion” and “spending” synonymously.

Sadly, compassionate conservatism gets a bad rap in today’s Republican circles because it became identified solely with the Medicare prescription drug benefit – a new, expensive entitlement created under George H.W. Bush.

Although Medicare Part D may be the tangible result, it wasn’t the theoretical origin. In fact, compassionate conservatism began with no thought that it would expand the government. “Compassionate conservatism is the theory that the government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself,” wrote Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson.

Putting it more artfully, George H.W. Bush said “It is compassionate to actively help our citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on accountability and results.”

Now, Paul Ryan is ready to pick up the torch, using his Path to Prosperity Budget to make the case that smart entitlement reforms, not rampant spending, is the compassionate choice. Here’s Ryan in a House Budget Committee meeting yesterday:

“I think around here we spend too much of our time and our intellectual effort measuring compassion for those in need by measuring inputs: “How much money are we spending, how much money are we increasing spending, how many programs are we creating?”

But we’re not measuring outcomes: “Are these programs working? Are people getting out of poverty?” And we need to focus on that, because if we simply measure inputs Medicaid is phenomenally successful.

…[B]ut surveys tell us doctors aren’t even taking Medicaid patients. One recent survey said that approximately half of all of our doctors aren’t going to take any additional Medicaid payments because they lose money every time a Medicaid patient walks into their office.”

As usual, Rep. Ryan couldn’t be more right. There is absolutely nothing compassionate about tossing more money into broken programs that do little to help Americans, but do a lot to create a cycle of dependence and poverty.

More to the point for young adults, there is nothing compassionate about running trillion-dollar-a-year deficits for as far as the eye can see. Consider this: 5.7 trillion. It’s an unimaginably huge number. Indeed, it’s more than five times the amount that federal, state, and local governments combined spend on educating our children every year. And yet, that is what America is projected to spend on interest on the national debt over the next decade. Not principle mind you, interest.

Such spending and debt has huge implications for the future. One new study by economists Carmen Reinhart, Vincent Reinhart, and Kenneth Rogoff found that in the 26 cases were public debt exceeded 90 percent of GDP since 1800, economic growth was about 1.2 percent lower than other years.

That may not sound like much, but the cumulative impact over the course of years is enormous. According to James Pethokoukis who ran the numbers, that’s the difference between having a $21 trillion economy in 2035 and a $28 trillion one. That’s a $7 trillion difference! And that’s money that could go into raising the standard of living in America, money that would go a long way towards reducing dependence on federal poverty programs.

Compassion is about conviction – a sincerity behind the promise to create solutions to the problems our nation faces in a way that is sustainable for future generations. It’s not about kicking the can down the road. And it’s surely not trying to convince Americans that the programs they have paid their whole lives into are safe (and in all to many cases have become reliant on) are fiscally sustainable, when the exact opposite is true.

The debate over reform is not a dichotomy between the heartless right and the compassionate left. Nothing could be more compassionate than putting America back on a responsible, sustainable path towards a secure bright future. That’s the new compassionate conservatism.