Compassionate conservatism is a felicitous campaign slogan. It is alliterative and pleasing to the ear. It appeals to both the hard-headed and the soft-hearted. It conjures up a vision of a federal government that is both fiscally responsible and actively engaged in helping its citizens share in the rewards of a prosperous society. This is precisely the kind of government that polls indicate most Americans want. The Bush campaign, justifiably proud of its slogan, has been desperately searching for appropriate policies. Ironically, the campaign need look no further than the budgetary policies pursued by President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore during the past eight years.
The budget proposals crafted by the Clinton Administration have been fiscally conservative in both design and effect. First, they have consistently embodied conservative forecasts. Instead of assuming that Congress would enforce the unrealistic caps on discretionary spending it enacted 2 1/2 years ago but has violated since, the Administration's latest budget realistically assumes that federal spending on domestic programs will stay at roughly current levels in real terms over the next decade. That means that the 10-year surplus outside the Social Security system will be about $750 million, substantially short of the amount needed to cover the "conservative" tax cut promised by the Bush campaign.
WORKING FAMILIES. Second, under the Clinton budgets, federal spending has fallen from about 22% of gross domestic product in 1992 to about 19% in 1999--the lowest share in 30 years. During the Clinton Presidency, real discretionary spending has declined by about 1% per year in real terms after increasing at about 1% per year in real terms during the avowedly "conservative" Reagan and Bush Presidencies. And for the third year in a row, the federal budget is projected to enjoy a substantial surplus, a far cry from the $455 billion deficit for 2000 projected back in 1992 when President Clinton was first elected.
The compassionate goals of the Clinton Administration are also clearly reflected in its budgetary priorities. From its first to its valedictory budget, the Administration has sought to increase federal support for education and training, health care, and tax-relief for low-income Americans. Since 1993, the Administration has increased funding for Head Start, the successful preschool program for low-income children, by 90%, and it has increased the maximum size of the Pell grants that help economically disadvantaged students by nearly 50%. Following the defeat of its comprehensive health-care reform in 1994, the Administration has worked incrementally to increase insurance coverage. After opposing a Republican plan to eliminate the Medicaid entitlement in 1995, the Administration designed a new program to expand coverage for children of working parents who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to cover the cost of private health insurance. The Administration's newest budget seeks funding to extend health insurance to workers between jobs, people between 55 and 64, uninsured parents of children eligible for Medicaid, and legal immigrants.
LOWEST ON RECORD. Nowhere has the compassion of the Clinton Administration been more apparent than in the area of tax policy. As the result of an increase in the earned income tax credit in the 1993 budget, more than 2 million additional Americans, over half of whom were children, were raised out of poverty by 1998. In its last budget proposal, the Administration is seeking an additional expansion of the EITC to provide more generous tax relief to 6.4 million low-income working families. In 1993, a working parent with two children, earning the minimum wage and claiming the earned income tax credit, lived well below the poverty line. By 1998, as a result of the EITC increase and the increase in the minimum wage also championed by the Clinton Administration, that family's income had increased by 27% in real terms and exceeded the poverty line. The poverty rate has fallen by 15% or more for all persons since 1993 and is presently the lowest on record for African Americans, African American children, Hispanic children, and single mothers. In terms of income distribution, the bottom 60% of the population has enjoyed the strongest growth in income since the 1970s.
The Bush campaign can certainly claim credit for coming up with the slogan of compassionate conservatism. But the record reveals that the Clinton-Gore Administration deserves the credit for putting that philosophy into budgetary practice during the last eight years.