"Compassion is more than a pretty word," Vice President Al Gore told fellow Democrats at a December meeting. "There is a long road between rhetoric and results."

The vice president's comments were pointed commentary on a new hybrid political label, "compassionate conservative," popularized by George W. Bush, the recently re-elected Republican governor of Texas. A Bush aide's rejoinder to Gore was: "I wonder which part the vice president disagrees with: compassionate or conservative." (At the moment, talk of the 2000 presidential campaign focuses on Bush and Gore as likely opponents.)

If American political debate refocuses on the definition and practice of compassion, it would be a breath of fresh air after the recent election season of attack ads and combative campaign rhetoric. Compassionate conservatism has its roots in Sen. Dan Coats's Project for American Renewal, which sought to enact legislation to empower the private sector and individuals to do the practical work of compassionate care. Compassionate conservatives favor greater accountability, tax credits for charitable giving, and in the words of Governor Bush, "making sure that government is not the answer to people's problems."

Public or private?

Especially since Ronald Reagan's 1980 inaugural address, in which he identified government as "the problem," there has been an ongoing political debate over whether government or the private sector (churches and charities) is better suited to help the poor, needy, and disadvantaged.

For much of American history, care for poor people was almost exclusively a private sector concern. But that all changed during the Great Depression with the enactment of Roosevelt's New Deal programs for the elderly, needy families, and the unemployed. ...

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