In a commencement address recently at Notre Dame, President Bush laid out the essence of what he means by "compassionate conservatism": "Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide."
Bush talks a good game, but he so far has virtually ignored national service, the government initiatives that make it possible for hundreds of thousands of Americans to help one another.
National service is the call for Americans to give back to their country not only by serving in the armed forces or joining the Peace Corps but by helping those in need here at home. It is part of the rich American tradition of voluntary civic action, but it is also about patriotism and duty and the obligations that come with the opportunities in the United States.
National service is based on the belief that many of the toughest social problems cannot be solved through government handouts or bureaucratic mechanisms. Meeting these challenges requires people power--citizens who reach out to help, one person at a time.
The past two presidents have recognized the potential power of national service as a problem-solving strategy and a way to bring the country together. President George H.W. Bush began the "thousand points of light" campaign to encourage and recognize volunteering, and he signed the landmark National and Community Service Act of 1990. President Clinton created AmeriCorps, which has engaged more than 200,000 young people in tutoring, mentoring, providing after-school care, feeding the homeless and responding to natural disasters.
The American people had every reason to expect that George W. Bush would extend this tradition. As governor of Texas, he stood up for AmeriCorps when congressional Republicans were trying to kill it. As a presidential candidate, he vowed to explore new avenues for national service by encouraging seniors, veterans and religious groups to join the "armies of compassion." And in one of the most eloquent passages in his inaugural address, President Bush called for a nation of "citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character."
While his presidency is still young, Bush has yet to follow through on this rhetoric. His first budget provided no new funds for national service, as his father and President Clinton had done. In fact, Bush seems to have given up on speaking with Americans about what they "can do for their country," focusing instead on what he has to offer citizens in the way of tax breaks and government programs. If compassionate conservatism means anything, it should mean new resources, ideas and sustained presidential leadership to encourage active citizenship.
At Notre Dame, Bush said that "citizenship is empty without concern for our fellow citizens." But compassion without action accomplishes nothing. National service translates the ideal of compassion into effective citizen action. In Bush's words, it "enlists, equips and empowers idealistic Americans" to make a difference in their communities.
The opportunity is at hand. The tax bill that has taken up so much of Bush's time is signed. And the change in leadership in the Senate signals that it is more important than ever that Bush seek areas of common ground.
National service fits the bill. It enjoys virtually universal support from governors and has strong bipartisan support in Congress. Polls consistently show that national service draws overwhelming support from Americans across the political spectrum. Most important, if Bush upholds and advances national service, he can transform his call for active citizenship from rhetoric into action.