Defining compassionate conservatism

Stephen Goldsmith, George W. Bush's senior domestic policy advisor and a bit of a wonk, calls for the public and private sectors to both do their part.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 3, 2000 5:33PM (EDT)

Stephen Goldsmith served as mayor of Indianapolis from 1992 until 1999. After losing a 1996 race for governor, Goldsmith -- according to Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- emerged as one of the exemplars of "compassionate conservatism." While reducing the size of his city's government, Goldsmith encouraged faith-based institutions to offer more services for the disadvantaged.

In 1994, the chairwoman of the Indiana Democratic Party slammed Goldsmith as "ambition in a suit." But his 1988 running mate John Mutz -- who ran a losing race for governor with Goldsmith as lieutenant governor -- had a nicer assessment, telling the Indianapolis Star last year that Goldsmith "is a dyed-in-the-wool policy wonk. I don't know that that is always considered a compliment, but in his case it is."

He is currently the chief domestic policy advisor for Bush. Salon caught up with him this week in Philadelphia.

Tell us how you and Gov. Bush first became acquainted.

I was elected as mayor of Indianapolis in '92 and started to try to find out whether there's a new set of policies that could help urban America -- non-traditional, Republican and not big-government.

About a year and a half ago, the governor began to explore whether to run for president. He took a period of time before he began to campaign to carefully examine the policies, and asked some of the best scholars in the country to Austin to examine these issues. He looked at environmental issues, he looked at criminal justice, he looked at compassionate conservatism in the broad sense, trying to pick out the ideas to run for president.

We've heard a lot of talk of compassionate conservatism during this convention. The chairman of the Republican National Committee said Monday that Gov. Bush was a "different kind of Republican," and that's a phrase that's being used a lot. I assume that that's meant in reference to "compassionate conservatism." What exactly does that mean? What's the policy?

The policy we want to emphasize, the policy he used to govern the state of Texas and the policy he would use if elected president of the United States essentially rejects both extremes.

That includes the big-government extreme -- for 30 years, the mayors had problems in their cities ... they increased their taxes and they spent more money. The situation got worse and became a big-government system. But then people heard the Republicans say four and six years ago, "Let's get rid of the government, the government is our enemy." But people scratched their heads a little -- they thought, "How does that help people?"

Compassionate conservatism says that there's a role for the government, there's a role to provide the resources. There's a role to provide the resources for prescription drugs for low-income seniors; there's a role to provide resources for healthcare for the uninsured; there's a role to help people buy their own homes. There's a role for the government in terms of letting people own part of their Social Security and put it into individual retirement accounts. But it is a role that respects the marketplace and local organizations. It's compassionate in the way it doesn't leave people behind, and it's conservative in the way it does that.

One of the criticisms of Bush's tax-cut proposal is that the majority of the money goes to the rich. I'm not talking about the percentages, since the people in the lower income categories get a higher percentage in their tax reduction, but just because richer people make more money, 60 percent of the money goes to the richest 10 percent. I understand the argument that people shouldn't be penalized for success, but how does that jibe with compassionate conservatism?

The marginal tax rate cuts are greater for working individuals -- working poor, working middle class individuals -- you've actually raised this question quite correctly. The tax-rate cuts for those who earn less money are greater, but for people who don't pay taxes, you can't cut them in a way that's going to save them a lot of money. If you pay a lot of taxes, even though your rate cut may be less, you're going to save more money.

The answer to this is that Governor Bush carefully crafted a reduction of marginal tax rates that's greater for those who are struggling. The $40,000 worker today pays a higher marginal rate on the next dollar he or she earns than the person making $200,000, and that isn't fair. Yes, inevitably, those making more money will save more money.

Al Gore has proposed a tax cut of his own, but his is targeted at middle- or low-income individuals. Why is George W. Bush's plan superior to Al Gore's?

Well, what Governor Bush's tax plan does is remove what he calls toll booths on the way to the middle class. It mitigates these hurdles that people have to get over. The governor's tax-cut proposal will help the economy and it will help individuals. But curiously enough, when we started talking about tax cuts, Americans were not sure that they were for them. But the governor predicted that we would have these extraordinary surpluses, and we have enough money today to return the money that is theirs and still solve prescription drug problems and healthcare for the uninsured.

There's been a lot of talk during the past week of the Republican platform -- there have been a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations. How accurately does the Republican platform represent Gov. Bush and what he stands for?

I haven't actually taken the platform line-for-line and contrasted it to our policies. It was important in many ways that the platform express the candidate, but the platform also represents this configuration, this consensus of ideas from around the country. The platform committee are elected delegates -- they aren't handpicked by Governor Bush. I haven't examined the platform in detail, but I think it in many ways represents the themes of the governor, but not in all ways. There was no effort to make sure that every word of the platform was consistent with every word of Bush policy position. But the delegates out here are highly supportive of the governor and the platform in large part is consistent with that.

I don't think we saw a single white Christian man speak Monday night. Everyone is either Jewish, African-American or a woman -- or some combination thereof. Not exactly a demographically accurate portrait of the people I see in this hall, but it certainly is a contrast to Republican conventions past. I know Gov. Bush appreciates the importance of imagery -- I don't mean that in a negative way, I mean that he wants to send a signal to America of what he stands for. But do you not think it's not a bit too much to not have one white Christian man speak on Monday night for a party that is basically run by white Christian men?

That profile doesn't fit me, exactly. I don't know the demographics of all the speakers; I'll assume you're correct about this. One of the reasons the governor is running for president, one of the reasons he recruited me, was that he wants to help people who prosperity has left behind. He wants the party to be more inclusive. Some of it's symbolism, but a lot of it is substance. This is where his heart is, this is what he wants to do.

I think it's fine that the people who are nominated to speak represent positions of importance to the governor. Clearly what he's trying to say to the people of America is that this is the face of what I want the Republican Party to include, and obviously we have a long way to go to get there, but it's an important statement. Let me suggest that it's a whole lot better this way than it was before. It's better to have people speaking who represent diversity than to have everything look monolithic.

You alluded to the fact that you're Jewish. Ronald Reagan did very well with Jewish voters, who traditionally vote Democratic, but that's changing in terms of their voting patterns. Gov. Bush's father did not do well with Jewish voters in '92, however. I know that Gov. Bush is making a push to try to get Jewish voters as well as blacks and Hispanics. Do you think he'll do well with the Jewish community?

American Jews have not voted Republican by majority or in significant percentages. They are, I think, attracted to the governor's economic policies -- in the way he's configuring his responses. I believe they are reassured about his education policies -- education is very important to American Jews and the governor is committed to that.

In social policy, there are wide differences of opinion. In some communities -- the Orthodox communities and not so much the Reform communities -- that we are responsible for explaining how you reach out to faith-based organizations in a way that clearly delineates the difference between church and state. We have a ways to go, but that's a challenge we're going to try to accomplish.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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