When David Kuo died last month of brain cancer at age 44, most obituaries emphasized his insider account of the shortcomings of President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, where he served from 2001 to 2003.
What got lost was just how relevant Mr. Kuo’s lessons on conservatism and charity are to today’s political situation.
In his 2006 book on his time in the Bush administration, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, Mr. Kuo suggested that conservatives “think fast,” or take a brief break from politics, devoting themselves instead to prayerful support for small, local faith-based organizations that helped “the least, the last, and the lost.”
That’s exactly what they need to do now.
Instead of gathering behind the carefully guarded gates of posh resorts, anteing up millions of dollars for clever attack ads, they need to follow Mr. Kuo’s vision, which he believed would lead to bigger political changes than spending money on get-out-the vote software.
Conservative donors, he suggested, should put their money and their time into working directly with the nation’s most effective grass-roots leaders and build a cadre of activists dedicated to pushing the kinds of ideas that can change this country’s political direction.
That kind of dedication to small, local charities is what Mr. Kuo, a fervent evangelical, came to President Bush’s administration to promote, after helping develop the “compassionate conservative” agenda as an adviser and speechwriter for former Secretary of Education William Bennett, former Sen. John Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri, and other prominent religious conservatives.
The ’90s was a heady time for compassionate conservatism, Mr. Kuo noted in Tempting Faith.
Faced with widespread evidence of moral and cultural decay in America, which fell especially severely on low-income Americans, conservatives had begun to realize that nostrums about the wonders of tax cuts and economic growth were no longer adequate.
“Praising business was fine with me, but sometimes it felt like business was akin to a real Santa Claus in the minds of Republicans—always doing good and helping people. I hardly believed that.”
The answer, Mr. Kuo maintained, was an effort to “revitalize what the 18th-century British political writer Edmund Burke called 'little platoons.’ They were the churches and schools, clubs and charities that served neighbors.”
Practicing “hands-on compassion,” such groups relied on intense, face-to-face spiritual connections to overcome the self-defeating cultural habits linked to poverty.
Government, however, had taken over “feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and helping suffering Americans and so undermined these little platoons.”
As a remedy, smaller government was necessary, but by no means sufficient. The object of compassionate conservatism was not so much to reduce government spending as to redeploy it so that it reinforced, rather than subverted, faith-based groups.
These convictions were shared by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Watching the governor visit and praise the work of the tiniest and scruffiest religious charities in the state, Mr. Kuo came to believe that “Bush was the real deal. He loved Jesus. He wanted to help the poor. He was the embodiment of the Christian political statesman I had dreamed of finding and dreamed of being.”
That led to Mr. Kuo’s stint in the White House’s faith-based office, which ended in disillusionment in 2003.
The office secured no major piece of legislation advancing faith-based efforts, Mr. Kuo pointed out, nor had it received the substantial financial support promised during the campaign.
Mr. Kuo never stopped believing that President Bush was personally deeply committed to the promotion of the “little platoons.”
But few of those around him in the White House shared that conviction, he found, nor was the president willing to go to the mat for them, the way he was for tax cuts and education reform.
Beneath his tale of political intrigue and failure, however, lay a deeper and more disturbing theme: Mr. Kuo reluctantly concluded that the program failed—and compassionate conservatism itself ran out of steam—because conservative political leadership was interested only in scoring partisan points, not in relieving the plight of the poor.
Mr. Kuo first realized this in the late ’90s when he formed American Compass, a small nonprofit designed to solicit more charitable support for small, local, overlooked groups in low-income neighborhoods. He would serve as the bridge between wealthy conservatives and grass-roots groups, identifying and evaluating those that were most effective.
But potential donors “proved to be much more enthusiastic about politics than grass-roots assistance for the poor,” he found.
“Big Republican donors were not interested in funding anti-poverty programs. Had I called with a proposal for a new political organization that took on the Clintons [then in the White House], funding would have been lavish. That wasn’t speculation. It was what donors told me.”
This indifference was particularly puzzling, Mr. Kuo observed, because charitable support for faith-based efforts would indeed have produced tangible, albeit not immediate, political results.
Such efforts were typically located among and managed by low-income African-Americans and Hispanics, demographic groups that were a growing share of the electorate but from whom conservatives had attracted negligible support.
A serious faith-based effort was the ideal way to bridge that chasm. That’s why the only serious White House staff support for President Bush’s faith-based program came from those who grasped its profound long-term political implications.
When the conservative activist Ralph Reed observed an auditorium full of minority grass-roots leaders listening raptly to Bush administration officials describe the faith-based program, he exclaimed to Mr. Kuo: “Do you realize what this is? This is what Republicans have been trying to do for the last 20 years. For the last 20 years we’ve tried to find a way to get this kind of audience into a room.”
Even with the prospect of such long-term political rewards, though, Mr. Kuo came to believe that Republicans were only comfortable speaking out “for tax cuts, business growth, a strong military. Compassion as policy really wasn’t what Republicans did.”
Mr. Kuo could not have been surprised at the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, when a compassionless agenda of business growth found no traction among the demographic groups for whom faith-based programs had initially been designed.
His political disillusionment led to his suggestion that religious conservatives take a break (a “fast”) from electoral engagement, diverting “every ounce of energy we currently expend on politics” to other things.
In particular, he proposed that “instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year” on political advocacy, “let’s give that money to charities and groups that are arguably closer to Jesus’s heart.”
What might such a fast look like today?
Conservative donors would turn to established groups like Robert Woodson’s Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (full disclosure: I serve on its board), or new groups based on Mr. Kuo’s American Compass to find, screen, and provide back-office support for grass-roots leaders who offer the best first-hand lessons in how to reshape public policy so that it supported, rather than undercut, our “little platoons.”
When politicians come calling on this new breed of conservative donors, they wouldn’t get any money until the politicos, too, proved willing to spend considerable time learning from the grass roots.
After direct, sustained, personal involvement in low-income neighborhoods by conservative philanthropists and politicians, a new and far more authentic compassionate conservatism might begin to take root.
Paradoxically, its ultimate political effectiveness would rely precisely on its “fast” from narrow political calculations.
Only if conservatives are willing to support low-income, grassroots groups outside the context of elections is it likely that they will ultimately get a hearing within the context of elections. As Mr. Woodson puts it, they must “sow charitably in order to reap politically.”
Speaking last month at the opening of his presidential library, President George W. Bush harked back to his support for religious charities: “Freedom brings responsibility. Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors and the strong protect the weak and public policies promote private compassion. As president, I tried to act on these principles every day. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular.”
No one resonated more powerfully to these sentiments than David Kuo, and no one testified more powerfully to their lack of popularity among conservative leaders. But difficult and unpopular measures are going to be necessary if conservatives are to overcome the growing demographic challenges they face and to meet the responsibilities that freedom brings.
They might begin by looking to the example of Mr. Kuo’s all too brief life, devoted to serving the poor by reviving America’s “little platoons.”
William Schambra directs the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal and is a regular contributor to The Chronicle’s opinion section.