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Where are the compassionate conservatives?

WASHINGTON We heard plenty of contradictions, distortions and untruths at the Republican candidates’ tea party debate, but we heard shockingly little compassion and almost no acknowledgment that political and economic policy choices have a moral dimension.

The lowest point of the evening and perhaps of the political season came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul a hypothetical question about a young man who elects not to purchase health insurance. The man has a medical crisis, goes into a coma and needs expensive care. “Who pays?” Blitzer asked.

“That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks,” Paul answered. “This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody ... “

Blitzer interrupted: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?”

There were enthusiastic shouts of “Yeah!” from the crowd. You’d think one of the other candidates might jump in with a word about Christian kindness. Not a peep.

Paul, a physician, went on to say that, no, the hypothetical comatose man should not be allowed to die. But in Paul’s vision of America, “our neighbours, our friends, our churches” would choose to assume the man’s care with government bearing no responsibility and playing no role.

Blitzer turned to Michele Bachmann, whose popularity with evangelical Christian voters stems, at least in part, from her own professed born-again faith. Asked what she would do about the man in the coma, Bachmann ignored the question and launched into a canned explanation of why she wants to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the Pharisees that God commands us to “love thy neighbour as thyself.” There is no asterisk making this obligation null and void if circumstances require its fulfillment via government.

The thing is, Bachmann knows a lot about compassion. She makes much of the fact that she and her husband took in 23 foster children over the years. But what of the orphaned or troubled children who are not lucky enough to find a wealthy family to take them in? What of the boys and girls who have stable homes but do not regularly see a doctor because their parents lack health insurance?

Government can reach them. But according to today’s Republican dogma, it must not.

Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Bachmann, Paul and the others onstage in Tampa all had the same prescription for the economy: Cut spending, cut taxes and let the wealth that results trickle down to the less fortunate.

They betrayed no empathy for, or even curiosity about, the Americans who depend on the spending that would be cut. They had no kind words in fact, no words at all for teachers, firefighters and police officers who will lose their jobs unless cash-strapped state and local government receive federal aid. Public servants, the GOP candidates imply, don’t hold “real” jobs. I wonder: Do Republicans even consider them “real” people?

Government is more than a machine for collecting and spending money, more than an instrument of war, a book of laws or a shield to guarantee and protect individual rights. Government is also an expression of our collective values and aspirations. There’s a reason why the Constitution begins “We the people ... “ rather than “We the unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another ...”.

I believe the Republican candidates’ pinched, crabby view of government’s nature and role is immoral. I believe the fact that poverty has risen sharply over the past decade as shown by new census data while the richest Americans have seen their incomes soar is unacceptable. I believe that writing off whole classes of citizens the long-term unemployed whose skills are becoming out of date, thousands of former offenders who have paid their debt to society, millions of low-income youth ill-served by inadequate schools is unconscionable.

Perry, who is leading in the polls, wants to make the federal government “inconsequential”. He thinks Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie”. He doesn’t much like Medicare, either.

But there was a fascinating moment in the debate when Perry defended Texas legislation that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. “We were clearly sending a message to young people, regardless of what the sound of their last name is, that we believe in you,” Perry said.

The other candidates bashed him with anti-immigrant rhetoric until the evening’s only glimmer of moral responsibility was snuffed out.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address –is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com

US Republican Party presidential candidates, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, businessman Herman Cain, Rep Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Rep Ron Paul of Texas, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, sing the National Anthem before a Republican presidential debate Monday, in Tampa, Florida.

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Published September 17, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated September 17, 2011 at 8:11 am)

Where are the compassionate conservatives?

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