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Can Conservatives Be Compassionate?

Think Tank Transcripts:Can Conservatives Be Compassionate?

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been madepossible by Amgen, a recipient of the presidential National Medal ofTechnology. Amgen, bringing better, healthier lives to peopleworldwide through biotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. The word 'conservative'conjures up images of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, while 'liberal'brings to mind the kindly Santa Claus. Can conservatives change thisperception?

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus are:Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York and author of the recentlypublished, 'Reason to Believe'; and Arianna Huffington, head of theCenter for Effective Compassion at the Progress and FreedomFoundation and author of 'The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul.'

The topic before this house: Can conservatives be compassionate?This week on 'Think Tank.'

For years, liberals pushed government poverty programs as the bestway to help the poor. Now some conservatives are arguing that thebig, one-size-fits-all bureaucratic programs actually hurt more thanthey help. It is said that they foster a debilitating culturaldependency among the poor. Instead, conservatives point to thesuccess of many private charities aimed at helping the poor, thehomeless and the drug-addicted.

Calling for effective compassion, these conservatives havelaunched a campaign that asks private individuals to give time -- atleast one hour a week, give money, and give wisely, that is, choosecharities that are effective.

The 18 pieces of legislation that make up The Project for AmericanRenewal have just been introduced in Congress by Republican SenatorDan Coats. They are designed to increase the charitable activities ofprivate individuals and groups. Among other things, Senator Coatsproposes a $500-per-person tax credit for contributions to privatecharities.

SEN. DAN COATS (R-IN): (From videotape.) A joint filer can take$1,000 off their taxes due to the government, give it to a localorganization that is helping in these areas. I think that's a moreeffective way of providing assistance to those in need thanlaundering the money through Washington, the bureaucracy, and pouringit into a federal program that's not doing the job.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, liberals claim that private giving can neverreplace the role of government in taking care of the needy. They sawthat all this talk about effective compassion is just a way tojustify conservative efforts to cut government.

SEN. DANIEL MOYNIHAN (D-NY): (From videotape.) Don't hurt childrenon the basis of an unproven theory, an untested hypothesis.

MR. WATTENBERG: Mario Cuomo, in New York, welcome to 'Think Tank,'and let me begin by asking you, why is the public impression thatconservatives are meanies? Why does it sound like an oxymoron whenyou say compassionate conservative?

MR. CUOMO: Probably, Ben, because as we're doing now, to becandid, we give a reverence to some of these labels that they don'tdeserve. And to discuss the issue of what we should do for poorpeople in terms of the perception of conservative and liberal is tosurrender to one of the problems that the system has, and that is theuse of labels that presume certain positions by people and that arevery seldom accurate.

So I think what we ought to do, frankly, is reframe the question:Do you think there is an intelligent way for government to help poorpeople, or should they go out of the business altogether and leave itto the churches and charities, without regard to conservative, etcetera. I think, frankly, much of our politics is a word game, it'ssemantics, it's shibboleth-ridden, and we ought to be talking aboutthe merits of the issues instead.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Arianna Huffington, are conservatives aseparate breed within this idea of charitable giving and governmentgiving?

MS. HUFFINGTON: I think the fundamental distinction is with regardto the role of government in compassionate giving. And the governorclearly believes that the government has a key role, andconservatives like myself, like Senator Coats, like Senator Ashcroftfrom Missouri, who are taking a lead in this area, believe that sofar the evidence of last 30 years of Great Society programs provesunequivocally that faith-based, community-based solutions are muchmore effective.

And the question is, how can the government facilitate thosesolutions, and how can politicians and other cultural leaders use thebully pulpit to encourage more people to get involved and to acceptsocial responsibility for those in need?

MR. CUOMO: I think -- Ben, I think Arianna has made my pointperfectly. See, she had to start by structuring what my position is.She said, 'The governor says that government should have a very keyposition.'

MS. HUFFINGTON: I say that by reading your book.

MR. CUOMO: May I finish? May I finish? And that qualifies myposition. Everything she just said about community activity, I didfor 12 years. I agree with her totally that we should work harder tosee to it that communities, through their charitable, not-for-profitefforts, are made more effective than they are now by governmentcooperating with them. I think the role of government is very simple,and I think President Lincoln said it about as clearly as it's everbeen said. I'll translate it to: all the government you need, butonly the government you need. What he said is, 'Government is thecoming together of people to do for themselves collectively what theycannot do as well or at all privately.'

Now, if indeed you can take care of the people with AIDS, you cantake care of all those poor people we've jammed into ghettos -- wedid that with our policies, if you can provide them with work andopportunity, if you can provide them with health care withoutMedicare, without Medicaid, without Aid to Families with DependentChildren, if you can do it all through the largesse of the smallgroup of people who are wealthy and able to afford giving to thepoor, if you believe that left without government compulsion, theprivate sector will take care of all of these problems, then that'swhat you should do.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, Mario --

MR. CUOMO: For 150 years, you tried it that way in this country.For 150 years, until the Depression, that's exactly what you did.

MR. WATTENBERG: I want to put up a chart to give a sense of theorder of magnitude of what we are talking about. Liberals havemeasured compassion by how many billions of dollars the governmentspends on the poor. That amount has risen from $62 billion in 1968 to290 billion (dollars) in 1992, and that is in inflation-adjusteddollars. While these have been in effect and have been growing duringthe past few decades or so, the rate of poverty has not come down,the rate of out-of-wedlock birth has skyrocketed. Do you think thatthese programs have worked, and if so, that is contrary evidence.

MR. CUOMO: Ben, I think the answer is simple. I think withoutthose programs, it would have been worse. I think the programs do notwork as well as they should. That's why 35 states -- and we were oneof the first -- are reforming welfare. That's why the first thing Isaid as a governor, and that was in 1983, the first of 12 years asgovernor, was work is better than welfare and the welfare systemisn't working. So there's no question that welfare needs to bereformed. That's 1.1 percent of the budget, AFDC. That's also true ofSocial Security, it is also true of Medicare, it is also true ofdefense, it is also true of the congressional system, it is also trueof the way we treat private business.

MS. HUFFINGTON: But, Governor --

MR. CUOMO: It is true of every part of this government.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on. Go ahead, Arianna. MS. HUFFINGTON: Thereare projects that work all around America. There are answers, thereare solutions.

MR. CUOMO: Absolutely correct.

MS. HUFFINGTON: Why can't we focus on them?

MR. CUOMO: We should.

MS. HUFFINGTON: Let me just give you a couple of examples.

MR. CUOMO: We should. We do in New York.

MS. HUFFINGTON: Teen Challenge in San Antonio, Texas, with 130branches everywhere, a faith-based drug rehabilitation program with70 and 80 percent success rates. There is no government program thathas more than a single-digit success rates. There is no amount ofreinventing them, there is no amount of reforming them that's goingto change the fact that government compassion is alwaysinstitutional, and we have found in our research at the Center forEffective Compassion that only personal compassion works -- personal,challenging, not based on an entitlement mentality, because the truthis that unless you encourage addicts to stop drinking, if theycontinue to feel that they are entitled to help even if they don'ttake any steps to reform themselves, then it's not going to work.

And also, we have found that when compassion is spiritual, bywhich we mean anything from a particular denomination to the beliefin a higher power, as in Alcoholics Anonymous, when it isfaith-based, it works; and when it is purely secular, on the whole,it doesn't.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, Arianna --

MR. CUOMO: None of that is arguable, it seems to me. I think allof that's correct. Now the question is, whether when you get one ofthese good private programs, it makes sense for the government tohelp finance them and let them run it, which is what we do in NewYork State -- and mostly through the United States.

MR. WATTENBERG: Arianna, if you send government money out to achurch or a synagogue, there is going to be some -- excuse theexpression -- bureaucrat with a regulation to make sure that thatdoesn't get misspent, it's not spent fraudulently, it's spent for theright thing. You then have stacks of paper, you then have somebodywho does it wrong. You then have newspaper stories in 'The New YorkPost' with great big headlines, you know, 'Joe Glotz Is a Crook,' andit's all government money. So doesn't it get you back into the samespot you're in now?

MS. HUFFINGTON: Well, these are really, Ben, interim solutions.Nobody is suggesting that the whole system is going to be dismantledovernight and private charity is going to take over. We are talkingabout a massive increase in citizen involvement. That's what I callit. It's not really private charity. We are talking about redefiningwhat it is to be a citizen, to go beyond voting and lobbying thegovernment to take care of the poor, and actually doing it ourselves,devoting some time and some percentage of our income.

And you know what, Governor? It's not the wealthy who are givingmore. It's the non-itemizers who are proportionately giving more oftheir income to help those in need. So it's not a question ofnoblesse oblige.

MR. CUOMO: Arianna, it is a wonderful instinct for people to give.Probably there is no nation in world history as generous as ours. Iknow in my own state, you know, it's not just the organizedcharities. We have about 130,000 people fighting fires in the stateof New York. Only about 40,000 of them get paid. All the other firefighters are volunteers, believe it or not. So we have a very strongcommitment to private charity, call it compassion, and that's fine.We use that instinct by government supporting the Archdiocese andJewish Federation, et cetera, et cetera, and the not-for-profits dothe work. All of that's unarguable. Can it be done better? Of course.Are there possibilities for corruption even by not-for-profits? Ofcourse. Are some of the not-for-profits led by people who get$400,000 salaries? Of course. So we should do that better.

The main question is this: Should you take government out of thebusiness? And if your answer is yes, if you want to go back to ourfirst 150 years, from the Constitution to the beginning of the 1930s,when the mentally retarded were village idiots and you locked themaway in a private charitable place and put mitts on their hands sothey wouldn't claw one another to death -- do you want to go back tothat, or do you want government to assist in this effort, albeit theyhave to do it more intelligently. That's the only intelligentstatement of the issue to me.

MR. WATTENBERG: Arianna Huffington, what is wrong with peoplecollectively giving money to the unfortunate? After all, we do thatprivately as well as publicly through, for example, an institutionlike the United Fund. We say, I don't have time to give to the 31charities I would like to give best, I'm going to write out onecheck, send it to the United Fund and they will distribute it. Isthat so much different from government?

MS. HUFFINGTON: Well, first of all, it is different. But moreimportant, there would be nothing wrong with doing it throughcollectively through the government if it worked. It just doesn'twork, and that's really at the heart of the problem. And when weignore the evidence of its not working, we are really being extremelyirresponsible. It's because it doesn't work that we need todramatically change the way we take care of those in need.

Let's take the care of Eliza, the 6-year-old that was abused andbrutally murdered by her mother in New York. There were plenty ofcase workers that went there. The whole system was in place. Therewere eight reports filed in the short six years of her life. Nobodydid what they would do in any functioning community, just grab herout of danger and then argue the law.

You see, that's what is lost. We've lost that sense of urgency, ofresponsibility, and we see our job now as paying our taxes anddelegating our compassion to the government. This is not how afunctioning community can work.

MR. CUOMO: Very respectfully -- very respectfully, to suggest fromthat one ugly, tragic anecdote that this is what happens when youhave government involved, to leave out all the government hospitals,all the government schools, all the government nursing homes, all the--

MS. HUFFINGTON: Now, let's talk about the government schools.

MR. CUOMO: Just a minute -- all the government research. To saythat for all of these years of welfare, nobody has been kept alive,nobody has been fed, including my own family.

MS. HUFFINGTON: I did not say any of that.

MR. CUOMO: To say that it doesn't work, you know, is an absurdity.To say that it hasn't worked perfectly is absolutely correct. To saythat you could do without government is a joke, to be candid withyou. And this is why, you know, the loose use of language is foolish.

MR. WATTENBERG: But hold on, both of you. Hang on. Hold on.

MR. CUOMO: The bottom line is this: you need governmentinvolvement because if you leave it to the private sector the way youdid for 150 years, they will not take care of the starving children,period.

MR. WATTENBERG: May I ask you both a very simple question --

MR. CUOMO: Sure. Sure.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- that I want a very short answer to? What do youdisagree about?

MS. HUFFINGTON: What we really disagree with is the fact that thegovernor ultimately does not believe, based on everything you saidhere and on everything you've said in your book very eloquently, youdo not really believe that any really massive endeavor can take placeto help the poor without the government being centrally involved. I'mnot suggesting the government disappearing from the effort, but I'msuggesting that the gravity, the center of gravity shifts from thegovernment to the communities. That's where the difference is.

MR. CUOMO: Arianna, let me respond to that, please. Once again,what you've done is made an assumption that's not accurate. You saidthat I believe the government must be centrally involved. I believethis, that as long as you need the government to be centrallyinvolved, which you do at this moment, then that's what you shouldhave. We should work together to encourage the private sector to doit for itself, and as the private sector proves its capacity to do itfor itself, then the government need relaxes. And that's ideal forme, and if all the private schools grow in strength and you needpublic schools less, then you'll have fewer public schools.

MS. HUFFINGTON: Then are you in favor of vouchers? Then you wouldsupport vouchers for children to be able to go to good schools?

MR. CUOMO: Well, if --

MS. HUFFINGTON: Would you?

MR. CUOMO: Well, I'd have to know how the voucher system wouldwork. For example, does that mean that if I'm in a public school now,I can get $3,000 for my kid and then put him in a private school,say, St. Monica's, a Catholic school? If that's what a voucher is,then I have to ask you this question: how about all the kids who arealready in the Catholic school? Do you give their parents $3,000,too, or do you violate the equal protection clause of the UnitedStates Constitution? And if you're going to give all the kids who arein that school now $3,000, you'll go broke.

MS. HUFFINGTON: No. I'm talking about programs that are already inplace, as in Milwaukee, specifically targeted to poor families. Andit's been an incredible community outpouring of money, ofencouragement, to get those children out of schools where they're notlearning anything.

MR. CUOMO: My evidence is that it has been a very limited success,if it's been a success at all. And you avoided my question. If thevoucher means that some people, even the poor people, will be given$3,000, or whatever the amount is, to go to a private school, thenthe question is this: how about all the other kids who are in thatprivate school now? Don't you have to pay for them?

MS. HUFFINGTON: This is really a very important issue.

MR. CUOMO: Sure.

MS. HUFFINGTON: Because for the governor to ignore the evidence ofwhat's happening in public schools all across America, when inWashington, D.C., it costs $9,000 to keep a child in the publicschools, where by any educational standard they graduate withoutbeing able to read, often, without being able to have a good job,without being able to function, how can you defend a totally brokensystem?

MR. CUOMO: I don't. I think we have --

MS. HUFFINGTON: What do you suggest?

MR. CUOMO: We have two systems. We have an excellent system in theUnited States of America for -- public school system -- for wealthyand middle-class communities. That's true all over the United Statesof America. It's certainly true in New Jersey and New York, in theNortheast. And that same public system in the poor neighborhoods is adisaster.

And it is not true, Arianna, that the schools in middle-classQueens County, middle-class Brooklyn, middle-class the Bronx orManhattan -- those middle-class schools are doing very, very well. Wewin all sorts of prizes, we do great on the SAT, we have the besttechnical high schools in the world, like the Bronx High School ofScience and Stuyvesant High School. It is the poor schools that arenot doing well. What does that suggest to you, Arianna? It is not thepublic schools that are failing. It is our ability to deal with thesocial problems of the poor that's creating a problem in educatingthe children of broken families, the children of addicted parents. Itis not the public school system that's failing at all.

MS. HUFFINGTON: Well, this is an incredible whitewashing of thefailure of the teachers' unions and of the public school system.

MR. CUOMO: Excuse me, you ignored what I just said.

MR. WATTENBERG: Mario -- Mario, let her finish.

MR. CUOMO: Arianna, you ignored what I just said. Do you deny --

MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on. Let her finish. Whoa. Governor, hang on aminute.

MR. CUOMO: -- that the middle-class and rich schools in the publicsystem are doing very, very well?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on a minute. Hold on. Let her get a word inhere. Go ahead, Arianna.

MS. HUFFINGTON: Well, the truth of the matter is that there areprograms, private programs, like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, that haveincredible success rates working with teenagers one on one, and thisis really at the heart of this whole debate about charity. We believethat all the evidence shows that for compassion to be effective, ithas to be personal, it has to be one on one. If you are going to helpa child get off drugs, which many of them, unfortunately, are alreadyaddicted, or if you can help a child learn to read, you have to do iton a personal level. By definition, government compassion isinstitutional. It's not personal, and that's why it doesn't work.

MR. WATTENBERG: I want to ask Arianna one question. Where haveconservatives been on this issue all this time? I think the governorsalutes what you're doing, I would salute what you're doing, but thefact of the matter is that if you go back historically, the idea ofconservatives being linked to the word 'compassionate' is a prettyslender reed. And I wonder --

MS. HUFFINGTON: Absolutely, and --

MR. WATTENBERG: -- what happened?

MS. HUFFINGTON: And it still is today, unfortunately. I think oneof the problems with the Republican Party right now, and withconservatives in general, is that we still believe, many of us, thata rising tide will lift all the boats, the whole sort of dream ofsupply-side economics. It's not true. A rising tide will not lift allthe boats. And that's why, even though I'm in favor of a balancedbudget, I think this idealization of a balanced budget, as thougheverything is going to somehow be well and everything is going to bemiraculously cured once we have a balanced budget in seven years, isreally an illusion and it is irresponsible. And I believe that theRepublicans are losing the public debate at the moment preciselybecause they are speaking like accountants and they are not speakingin a way that exemplifies the true compassion of cutting governmentwelfare programs.

We should not be cutting government welfare programs in order tobalance the budget. I would be against that. If I believed they work,I would want them even if we had an unbalanced budget. We should becutting them because they don't work.

Newt Gingrich used to say, 'We don't want a cheap welfare state.'But recently, he too has been talking primarily about theoverwhelming need to balance the budget, and without addressing atthe same time all the other concerns that we've been addressing heretoday. MR. WATTENBERG: Governor.

MR. CUOMO: You know, Ben, I think another thing -- and Arianna,another thing that would make the discussion a little bit simpler --getting back to semantics -- is if you dropped the emphasis on theword 'compassion.' I've discovered -- you know, I've used the word asmuch as anybody. I use words like 'sweetness' and 'love' more thanmost politicians do. It confuses people when you say, 'We take thisto be an exercise in compassion.'

What I would offer as an argument now is, look, what I callcompassion, helping the children in the ghettos, is really ultimatelya matter of common sense and pragmatism, that unless we make thatgroup productive, we cannot afford the cost of the failure. We can'tafford the prisons, we can't afford the illness, we can't afford thesocial disruption, we can't afford the loss of productivity.

So if you insist on being pragmatic, and that appears to be thedirection of the time, then you have to make a better and moreintelligent investment in rescuing that part of our population that'sfailing because that part's getting bigger and bigger, it's notgetting smaller, and at one point, it's going to drag us down.

MR. WATTENBERG: I'm still trying to figure out what you all differon. And I wonder if this does it, that Arianna thinks that thefederal government programs caused much of the turmoil and terror inour cities; and you, Governor, believe that it would have been evenworse if that intervening role had not taken place. Is that -- wouldyou both agree with that?

MR. CUOMO: I would agree if someone were to make the point thatsome of the poor performance in some of the programs, like, forexample, welfare, had the effect of encouraging people to remaindependent. I would say yes, and that has to be reformed. But --

MR. WATTENBERG: Has it encouraged out-of-wedlock birth?

MR. CUOMO: In some small number of cases, it probably did. I wouldalso -- and that should be changed, and we're changing it in New Yorkand in 34 other states. But I would also say that overall, even withthose imperfections, like the imperfections in defense, like theimperfections in education and corporate welfare and research, eventhe imperfections of our legislature, which we have invested billionsin over the years and they're still the most unpopular institution wehave, that overall the welfare system has produced a better situationthan you would have had without it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Would you agree that that is the differencebetween your position and Governor Cuomo's position, that you thinkthe federal programs caused it and he thinks it would have been evenworse had we not gotten into it? MS. HUFFINGTON: No, not really.First of all, I don't think that they caused it. I think they were acontributing cause. I think other reasons that you have writtenabout, the breakdown in values, in family, were more important, moresignificant.

I think the fundamental difference between us is about the presentand the future, not about the past. It's about where should theemphasis be now? Should it be on community-based solutions --churches, synagogues, families; or should it be still driven by thegovernment, with the help of citizens? That's the fundamentaldifference.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Arianna Huffington. Thank you,Governor Mario Cuomo. And thank you.

You know, at 'Think Tank,' we hold the holidays up to the samerigorous scrutiny that we give every subject. Here are a couple ofholiday program ideas that we considered: No room at the inn --discrimination in ancient Judea. Santa Claus's girth -- lifestyle orgenes? Ebenezer Scrooge -- cruel miser or fiscal hero?

Our complete holiday greeting can be found on the World Wide Webat www.thinktank.com. Or we can be reached via e-mail atthinktv@aol.com. As always, please send your comments and questionsto: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC,20036.

From all of us at 'Think Tank,' we wish you a happy holiday. I'mBen Wattenberg.

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