BEFORE THEY are compassionate, it may be said, conservatives tend to oppose government. They love to find initiatives they can belittle as handouts from helpless bureaucracies.
George W. Bush, who advertised himself as an exception to that rule, now pushes a tax cut plan that could squeeze compassion out of the picture.
Though his insistence on the full $1.6 trillion cut is no doubt tactical, he gives no indication of wanting to help new workers (former welfare recipients) stabilize their marginal, low-wage lives. What a pity. His promise of compassion gave him a rare opportunity to make sensible improvements in welfare policy, improvements that would consolidate recent gains.
A man whose conservative credentials are beyond dispute, he has more latitude to experiment in areas that would be defeated as "liberal tax-and-spend" policies if proposed by a Democrat. (What would conservatives be saying about a faith-based initiative directed partially at black clergymen if Democrats had proposed it?)
One might have to concede moreover that the Democrats have not responded in ways that suggest they will be the real party of compassion. Instead, they are mostly tinkering around the edges - fearful, perhaps, that Mr. Bush has the political high ground with tax cuts that many voters want.
Compassion could easily be forgotten in the rush.
It's not too late, of course, for Mr. Bush and Congress to build on the Clinton welfare reform program. If either side had more than the compassion of political convenience, they would look for ways they could improve the system - especially if the economy slumps, throwing the newly hired out of work.
Each of us can make our own judgment about how much compassion anyone in Washington really has:
Will there be an increase in the earned income tax credit enhanced by the Clinton administration, a tax benefit that greatly assists newly employed, low-wage workers?
Will there be a push to increase the minimum wage?
Will regulatory constraints be relaxed so that Food Stamps are readily accessible to the eligible needy? Critics say reducing error rates seems more important than getting help to eligible families.
Health insurance for children in poverty was broadened and improved dramatically under Mr. Clinton, but their parents were not covered adequately. Will Washington begin to extend benefits?
Many hope the president's recently announced faith-based initiatives will help. And they deserve a chance to succeed.
But those who work with the poor every day know real compassion has to come from government as well as from higher powers.