Are There No Workhouses?

In this season, it is traditional to express universal good will, to wish friend, foe and stranger a happy new year and, in that same spirit, to talk about and possibly even do something about the condition suffered by the poor, hungry and homeless. It’s the time of year when the President and other public worthies urge us all to display the kindness and generosity we like to believe are characteristic of our people and our society.

A week before Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Bush visited a food bank in Washington. “Laura and I are here to send a message to our fellow Americans,” Mr. Bush intoned for the occasion. “We hope you love your neighbor as you would like to love-be loved yourself. That in this holiday season, let’s commit ourselves to making it a season of service to others, others who might hurt, others who need food, others who can benefit from our kindness and generosity.

“I love to tell people in this country, ‘This is a fabulous country-in my judgment, the greatest country on the face of the Earth. And the reason why is because America is full of people who have got great hearts and great souls, people who are willing to serve something greater than themselves.'”

So let’s ignore the fractured syntax and suspend routine skepticism. Let’s assume that George W. Bush means what he says when he talks about compassion. Many of those who know Mr. Bush personally believe he is filled with concern for those whose circumstances are far less fortunate than his have always been.

During the 2000 campaign, Mark McKinnon-the former Democratic media consultant who crossed the partisan aisle to work for Mr. Bush-once tried to explain to me why he was so certain about the sincerity of the Texan’s “compassionate conservatism.” I didn’t surrender my doubts about his client, but I couldn’t doubt Mr. McKinnon’s sincere faith that his candidate intended to change the Republican Party into an advocate for the downtrodden.

That description of the G.O.P. may provoke laughter, but it must be said that Mr. McKinnon was not alone in that belief then. Nor is he today: Even John DiIulio, the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, praised the President in his otherwise stinging assessment of the administration’s domestic record.

Before the Penn professor and poverty expert was strong-armed or guilt-tripped into backing down, he lamented Mr. Bush’s “virtually empty record on compassionate conservatism.” But despite personal and professional disappointments, Mr. DiIulio has never doubted the President’s “character and heart,” describing him as “a highly admirable person of enormous personal decency … a godly man and a moral leader …. In many ways, he is all heart.”

Mr. Bush must be heartsick, then, to realize how little progress he has made toward transforming either his party or his country. Current evidence suggests that whatever the President’s fine intentions, his policies are moving America’s poor and working families backward. The benefits of his administration’s policies have flowed almost exclusively to the wealthiest citizens, as if he were the heartless plutocrat of Democratic caricature. The same week he and his wife visited that food bank, he neglected again to take an aggressive position on extending unemployment benefits to nearly a million families victimized by the stubbornness of the Republican Congressional leadership. The result will be more Americans who must seek charitable assistance to feed themselves and their children.

He must also be heartsick when he realizes that his party and his own administration are also moving backward. Having extended so much budgetary largesse to the richest taxpayers that the nation can only anticipate enormous deficits, his supporters and advisers are now suggesting that taxes on poor and middle-class families should be raised.

Both the Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers are drafting papers that “are expected to highlight what administration officials see as a rising tax burden on the rich and a declining burden on the poor,” as The Washington Post reported on Dec. 16. The next step, as The Wall Street Journal ‘s editorial page indicated not long ago, will be to raise taxes on those “lucky duckies” at the lower end of the economic ladder.

Obviously, we’ve come a long way since Mr. McKinnon’s candidate promised that his trillion-dollar-plus tax cut would “take down the tollgate on the road to the middle class” and assist working families “on the outskirts of poverty.” Now Mr. Bush’s aides tell us that those struggling families are indulged too much by the government.

Is this how the President plans to express his “love” for those who have so much less than he and his friends enjoy every day? If so, he risks being remembered as Robin Hood in reverse, a parody of charity-and as a conservative who mocked compassion. Are There No Workhouses?