I have spent most of this week in Washington DC with Tim Montgomerie, Philippa Stroud and like-minded conservatives from the US, Canada and New Zealand.
Tuesday 13 November
Arriving at Dulles late afternoon, we face the usual hour long wait to clear passport control. Tim, whose flight landed ten minutes after ours, conscientiously declines the opportunity to save himself half an hour by ducking under the barrier to join us further up the queue. I suppose the resulting extra delay is a small price to pay for maintaining our Editor’s integrity.
On leaving the airport, it’s uplifting to see that a new lounge has just opened for the exclusive use of American servicemen and their families. Can you imagine that at Heathrow? Later in the week at a shopping mall, I notice mobile phone provider Cingular is offering special deals to service personnel. BAA and Vodafone – please take note.
Wednesday 14 November
Philippa and I begin our day meeting Bob Woodson at his Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement, Bob left when he felt middle-class black Americans were using it to seek privilege from cultivating the status of victims. CNE works with community leaders based in many of America’s toughest urban areas, building their capacity through training and introductions to donors.
A man of sound conservative convictions, Bob’s network of grassroots poverty-fighters helped provide Newt Gingrich with the justification he needed to pioneer the 1996 federal welfare reforms. They told Gingrich that recipients of welfare in the communities they served would benefit most from a time limit on entitlement of just two years. The five year limit eventually settled seems rather generous in comparison.
In the afternoon, our group is hosted by Jay Hein, the Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI). Our meeting is held in the White House compound’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building. During the War, Winston Churchill and the Americans planned for victory here when it was the Department of War, Navy and State.
I first met Jay four years ago in Indianapolis where he directed the Sagamore Institute, a civil society think-tank based in the city. Jay is the third director of this Office that has had a key role in implementing ‘Compassionate Conservatism’, Bush’s signature initiative of his 2000 presidential campaign.
The Initiative has attracted its fair share of controversy. However it – and Bush’s broader compassion agenda – has achieved a significant amount. This should not be overlooked, whatever the administration’s level of popularity.
Domestically, for example, there’s Access to Recovery. This is a federal, voucher-based drug rehabilitation scheme administered by the FCBI. It has empowered 170,000 addicts to access services from 5,500 grassroots organisations. Although full evaluations have yet to be published, outcomes are expected to be impressive. Britain’s addicts are ill-served by our drug treatment industry that is achieving pathetic results for the vast sums invested in it. It’s surely time to develop a British equivalent of Access to Recovery.
To mainstream the President’s commitment to empower the ‘armies of compassion’, FCBI offices have been set-up in all departments of federal government. For example, the Administration for Children and Families are pioneering a large number of programmes to encourage healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood. And $130 million of the budget for the President’s AIDS initiative has been assigned to facilitate greater funding of new, smaller NGOs, as a counter-balance to the ‘Beltway bandits’ – the large development charities expert in hoovering up vast sums of government money.
Although the FCBI has been viewed as being all about favouring faith groups, very many secular community groups are benefiting too. 34 state governors have established their own faith-based and community initiatives offices, and no Democrat governor has shut-down an office set-up by their Republican predecessor. In 1996, the prospect of large-scale partnering of government and the community sector would have been inconceivable. Now, it is mainstream. That, combined with initiating America’s largest foreign aid programme since the Marshall Plan, are achievements President Bush can be rightfully proud of.
Thursday 15 November
We arrive at our conference venue in Georgetown for this second international gathering of Anglosphere conservatives committed to social justice. I am tickled by the deliciously American slogan of the centre: ‘Hosting conversations of enduring consequence’. Hopefully ours will be.
The Heritage Foundation has done an excellent job in bringing together current and former Bush administration officials, a Canadian delegation, and a New Zealand contingent with representatives of the hugely impressive Maxim Institute. Philippa and I present on the work of the Centre over the last two years, especially the Social Justice Policy Group.
In the evening it’s off to the Hudson Institute to hear Mike Gerson, former chief speechwriter to the President, present on his new book Heroic Conservatism. According to Gerson, every generation must address the great moral causes of its time. Today, those causes will either find expression inside the conservative movement or outside it. Gerson calls for decisive action to combat AIDS in developing nations, tackle poverty in America, and promote human rights and dignity abroad. Asked why more progress had not been made in such areas by the Bush administration he was part of, Gerson argues that compassionate conservatism has never had much support in the GOP, and certainly not in Congress.
In response, New York Times columnist David Brooks agrees that limited government must not be the central principle of modern American conservatism; to make it so would be politically insane and wrong substantively. However Brooks says it’s vital to keep our moral fervour in check with a proper sense of conservative limits. As a Christian, Gerson should appreciate that our fallen world is not perfectible.
Friday 16 November
Our trip concludes with a morning at the Heritage Foundation on Massachusetts Avenue, overlooking the Capitol building. For British Conservatives, the scope and scale of Heritage’s work is breathtaking, encompassing extensive high quality research on policy areas as diverse as national security, healthcare and civil society.
Three Heritage experts – David Muhlhausen, Christine Kim and Robert Rector – kindly brief us on topics including police and prison reform, strengthening marriage and America’s ongoing welfare reform. We’ll be feeding in their insights to the CSJ’s new policy groups.
As we make our way out to Dulles, I reflect that for all its faults, the world is hugely blessed to have the United States as its pre-eminent power, rather a country like China, or Saudi Arabia. Its greatness far surpasses its economic and military strength.
Thanks are due to Jennifer Marshall at Heritage and her assistants Lauren Hammond and Evan Feinberg for hosting an inspirational event.