Can conservatives be compassionate? — with Arianna Huffington (1995) | THINK TANK

Ben 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 this perception? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York and author of the recently published,
“Reason to Believe”; and Arianna Huffington, head of the Center for Effective Compassion
at the Progress and Freedom Foundation 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 best way to help the poor. Now some conservatives are arguing that the
big, one-size-fits-all bureaucratic programs actually hurt more than they help. It is said that they foster a debilitating
cultural dependency among the poor. Instead, conservatives point to the success
of many private charities aimed at helping the poor, the homeless, and the drug-addicted. Calling for effective compassion, these conservatives
have launched a campaign that asks private individuals to give time — at least one
hour a week, give money, and give wisely — that is, choose charities that are effective. The 18 pieces of legislation that make up
the Project for American Renewal have just been introduced in Congress by Republican
Sen. Dan Coats. They are designed to increase the charitable
activities of private individuals and groups. Among other things, Sen. Coats proposes a
$500-per-person tax credit for contributions to private charities. Dan Coats [from videotape]: A joint filer
can take $1,000 off their taxes due to the government, give it to a local organization
that is helping in these areas. I think that’s a more effective way of providing
assistance to those in need than laundering the money through Washington, the bureaucracy,
and pouring it into a federal program that’s not doing the job. Ben Wattenberg: Now, liberals claim that private
giving can never replace the role of government in taking care of the needy. They saw that all this talk about effective
compassion is just a way to justify conservative efforts to cut government. Daniel Moynihan [from videotape]: Don’t
hurt children on the basis of an unproven theory, an untested hypothesis. Ben Wattenberg: Mario Cuomo, in New York,
welcome to “Think Tank” and let me begin by asking you, why is the public impression
that conservatives are meanies? Why does it sound like an oxymoron when you
say compassionate conservative? Mario Cuomo: Probably, Ben, because as we’re
doing now, to be candid, we give a reverence to some of these labels that they don’t
deserve. And to discuss the issue of what we should
do for poor people in terms of the perception of conservative and liberal is to surrender
to one of the problems that the system has, and that is the use of labels that presume
certain positions by people and that are very 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
poor people, or should they go out of the business altogether and leave it to the churches
and charities, without regard to conservative, etc. I think, frankly, much of our politics is
a word game; it’s semantics, it’s shibboleth-ridden, and we ought to be talking about the merits
of the issues instead. Ben Wattenberg: All right. Arianna Huffington, are conservatives a separate
breed within this idea of charitable giving and government giving? Arianna Huffington: I think the fundamental
distinction is with regard to the role of government in compassionate giving. And the governor clearly believes that the
government has a key role, and conservatives like myself, like Sen. Coats, like Sen. Ashcroft
from Missouri, who are taking a lead in this area, believe that so far the evidence of
last 30 years of Great Society programs proves unequivocally that faith-based, community-based
solutions are much more effective. And the question is, how can the government
facilitate those solutions, and how can politicians and other cultural leaders use the bully pulpit
to encourage more people to get involved and to accept social responsibility for those
in need? Mario Cuomo: I think — Ben, I think Arianna
has made my point perfectly. See, she had to start by structuring what
my position is. She said, “The governor says that government
should have a very key position.” Arianna Huffington: I say that by reading
your book. Mario Cuomo: May I finish? May I finish? And that qualifies my position. Everything she just said about community activity,
I did for 12 years. I agree with her totally that we should work
harder to see to it that communities, through their charitable, not-for-profit efforts,
are made more effective than they are now by government cooperating with them. I think the role of government is very simple,
and I think President Lincoln said it about as clearly as it’s ever been said. I’ll translate it to: all the government
you need, but only the government you need. What he said is: “Government is the coming
together of people to do for themselves collectively what they cannot do as well or at all privately.” Now, if indeed you can take care of the people
with AIDS, you can take care of all those poor people we’ve jammed into ghettos — we
did that with our policies, if you can provide them with work and opportunity, if you can
provide them with health care without Medicare, without Medicaid, without Aid to Families
with Dependent Children, if you can do it all through the largesse of the small group
of people who are wealthy and able to afford giving to the poor, if you believe that left
without government compulsion, the private sector will take care of all of these problems,
then that’s what you should do. Ben Wattenberg: But, Mario — Mario Cuomo: For 150 years, you tried it that
way in this country. For 150 years, until the Depression, that’s
exactly what you did. Ben Wattenberg: I want to put up a chart to
give a sense of the order of magnitude of what we are talking about. Liberals have measured compassion by how many
billions of dollars the government spends on the poor. That amount has risen from $62 billion in
1968 to $290 billion in 1992, and that is in inflation-adjusted dollars. While these have been in effect and have been
growing during the 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 that these programs have worked,
and if so, that is contrary evidence. Mario Cuomo: Ben, I think the answer is simple. I think without those programs, it would have
been worse. I think the programs do not work as well as
they should. That’s why 35 states — and we were one
of the first — are reforming welfare. That’s why the first thing I said as a governor,
and that was in 1983, the first of 12 years as governor, was work is better than welfare
and the welfare system isn’t working. So there’s no question that welfare needs
to be reformed. That’s 1.1 percent of the budget, AFDC. That’s also true of Social Security, it
is also true of Medicare, it is also true of defense, it is also true of the congressional
system, it is also true of the way we treat private business. Arianna Huffington: But, Governor — Mario Cuomo: It is true of every part of this
government. Ben Wattenberg: Hold on. Go ahead, Arianna. Arianna Huffington: There are projects that
work all around America. There are answers; there are solutions. Mario Cuomo: Absolutely correct. Arianna Huffington: Why can’t we focus on
them? Mario Cuomo: We should. Arianna Huffington: Let me just give you a
couple of examples. Mario Cuomo: We should. We do in New York. Arianna Huffington: Teen Challenge in San
Antonio, Texas, with 130 branches everywhere, a faith-based drug rehabilitation program
with 70 and 80 percent success rates. There is no government program that has more
than a single-digit success rates. There is no amount of reinventing them, there
is no amount of reforming them that’s going to change the fact that government compassion
is always institutional, and we have found in our research at the Center for Effective
Compassion that only personal compassion works — personal, challenging, not based on an
entitlement mentality, because the truth is that unless you encourage addicts to stop
drinking, if they continue to feel that they are entitled to help even if they don’t
take any steps to reform themselves, then it’s not going to work. And also, we have found that when compassion
is spiritual, by which we mean anything from a particular denomination to the belief in
a higher power, as in Alcoholics Anonymous, when it is faith-based, it works; and when
it is purely secular, on the whole, it doesn’t. Ben Wattenberg: But, Arianna — Mario Cuomo: None of that is arguable, it
seems to me. I think all of that’s correct. Now the question is, whether when you get
one of these good private programs, it makes sense for the government to help finance them
and let them run it, which is what we do in New York State — and mostly through the
United States. Ben Wattenberg: Arianna, if you send government
money out to a church or a synagogue, there is going to be some — excuse the expression
— bureaucrat with a regulation to make sure that that doesn’t get misspent, it’s not
spent fraudulently, it’s spent for the right thing. You then have stacks of paper, you then have
somebody who does it wrong. You then have newspaper stories in The New
York Post with great big headlines, you know, “Joe Glotz Is a Crook,” and it’s all
government money. So doesn’t it get you back into the same
spot you’re in now? Arianna Huffington: Well, these are really,
Ben, interim solutions. Nobody is suggesting that the whole system
is going to be dismantled overnight and private charity is going to take over. We are talking about a massive increase in
citizen involvement. That’s what I call it. It’s not really private charity. We are talking about redefining what it is
to be a citizen, to go beyond voting and lobbying the government 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 giving more. It’s the non-itemizers who are proportionately
giving more of their income to help those in need. So it’s not a question of noblesse oblige. Mario Cuomo: Arianna, it is a wonderful instinct
for people to give. Probably there is no nation in world history
as generous as ours. I know in my own state, you know, it’s not
just the organized charities. We have about 130,000 people fighting fires
in the state of 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 strong commitment to private
charity, call it compassion, and that’s fine. We use that instinct by government supporting
the Archdiocese and Jewish Federation, etc., etc., and the not-for-profits do the work. All of that’s unarguable. Can it be done better? Of course. Are there possibilities for corruption even
by not-for-profits? Of course. 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 the business? And if your answer is yes, if you want to
go back to our first 150 years, from the Constitution to the beginning of the 1930s, when the mentally
retarded were village idiots and you locked them away in a private charitable place and
put mitts on their hands so they wouldn’t claw one another to death — do you want
to go back to that, or do you want government to assist in this effort, albeit they have
to do it more intelligently. That’s the only intelligent statement of
the issue to me. Ben Wattenberg: Arianna Huffington, what is
wrong with people collectively giving money to the unfortunate? After all, we do that privately and publicly
through, for example, an institution like the United Fund. We say, I don’t have time to give to the
31 charities I would like to give best, I’m going to write out one check, send it to the
United Fund, and they will distribute it. Is that so much different from government? Arianna Huffington: Well, first of all, it
is different. But more important, there would be nothing
wrong with doing it through collectively through the government if it worked. It just doesn’t work, and that’s really
at the heart of the problem. And when we ignore the evidence of its not
working, we are really being extremely irresponsible. It’s because it doesn’t work that we need
to dramatically change the way we take care of those in need. Let’s take the care of Eliza, the 6-year-old
that was abused and brutally murdered by her mother in New York. There were plenty of caseworkers that went
there. The whole system was in place. There were eight reports filed in the short
six years of her life. Nobody did what they would do in any functioning
community, just grab her out of danger and then argue the law. You see, that’s what is lost. We’ve lost that sense of urgency, of responsibility,
and we see our job now as paying our taxes and delegating our compassion to the government. This is not how a functioning community can
work. Mario Cuomo: Very respectfully — very respectfully,
to suggest from that one ugly, tragic anecdote that this is what happens when you have government
involved, to leave out all the government hospitals, all the government schools, all
the government nursing homes, all the — Arianna Huffington: Now, let’s talk about
the government schools. Mario Cuomo: Just a minute — all the government
research. To say that for all of these years of welfare,
nobody has been kept alive, nobody has been fed, including my own family. Arianna Huffington: I did not say any of that. Mario 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 say that you could do without government
is a joke, to be candid with you. And this is why, you know, the loose use of
language is foolish. Ben Wattenberg: But hold on, both of you. Hang on. Hold on. Mario Cuomo: The bottom line is this: You
need government involvement because if you leave it to the private sector the way you
did for 150 years, they will not take care of the starving children, period. Ben Wattenberg: May I ask you both a very
simple question — Mario Cuomo: Sure. Sure. Ben Wattenberg: — that I want a very short
answer to? What do you disagree about? Arianna Huffington: What we really disagree
with is the fact that the governor ultimately does not believe, based on everything you
said here and on everything you’ve said in your book very eloquently, you do not really
believe that any really massive endeavor can take place to help the poor without the government
being centrally involved. I’m not suggesting the government disappearing
from the effort, but I’m suggesting that the gravity, the center of gravity shifts
from the government to the communities. That’s where the difference is. Mario Cuomo: Arianna, let me respond to that,
please. Once again, what you’ve done is made an
assumption that’s not accurate. You said that I believe the government must
be centrally involved. I believe this, that as long as you need the
government to be centrally involved, which you do at this moment, then that’s what
you should have. We should work together to encourage the private
sector to do it for itself, and as the private sector proves its capacity to do it for itself,
then the government need relaxes. And that’s ideal for me, and if all the
private schools grow in strength and you need public schools less, then you’ll have fewer
public schools. Arianna Huffington: Then are you in favor
of vouchers? Then you would support vouchers for children
to be able to go to good schools? Mario Cuomo: Well, if — Arianna Huffington: Would you? Mario Cuomo: Well, I’d have to know how
the voucher system would work. 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 are already in the Catholic school? Do you give their parents $3,000, too, or
do you violate the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution? And if you’re going to give all the kids
who are in that school now $3,000, you’ll go broke. Arianna Huffington: No. I’m talking about programs that are already
in place, as in Milwaukee, specifically targeted to poor families. And it’s been an incredible community outpouring
of money, of encouragement, to get those children out of schools where they’re not learning
anything. Mario 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 the voucher means that some people, even
the poor people, will be given $3,000, or whatever the amount is, to go to a private
school, then the question is this: How about all the other kids who are in that private
school now? Don’t you have to pay for them? Arianna Huffington: This is really a very
important issue. Mario Cuomo: Sure. Arianna Huffington: Because for the governor
to ignore the evidence of what’s happening in public schools all across America, when
in Washington, DC, it costs $9,000 to keep a child in the public schools, where by any
educational standard they graduate without being able to read, often, without being able
to have a good job, without being able to function, how can you defend a totally broken
system? Mario Cuomo: I don’t. I think we have — Arianna Huffington: What do you suggest? Mario Cuomo: We have two systems. We have an excellent system in the United
States of America for — public school system — for wealthy and middle-class communities. That’s true all over the United States of
America. It’s certainly true in New Jersey and New
York, in the Northeast. And that same public system in the poor neighborhoods
is a disaster. And it is not true, Arianna, that the schools
in middle-class Queens County, middle-class Brooklyn, middle-class the Bronx or Manhattan
— those middle-class schools are doing very, very well. We win all sorts of prizes; we do great on
the SAT; we have the best technical high schools in the world, like the Bronx High School of
Science and Stuyvesant High School. It is the poor schools that are not doing
well. What does that suggest to you, Arianna? It is not the public schools that are failing. It is our ability to deal with the social
problems of the poor that’s creating a problem in educating the children of broken families,
the children of addicted parents. It is not the public school system that’s
failing at all. Arianna Huffington: Well, this is an incredible
whitewashing of the failure of the teachers’ unions and of the public school system. Mario Cuomo: Excuse me, you ignored what I
just said. Ben Wattenberg: Mario — Mario, let her finish. Mario Cuomo: Arianna, you ignored what I just
said. Do you deny — Ben Wattenberg: Hold on. Let her finish. Whoa. Governor, hang on a minute. Mario Cuomo: — that the middle-class and
rich schools in the public system are doing very, very well? Ben Wattenberg: Hold on a minute. Hold on. Let her get a word in here. Go ahead, Arianna. Arianna Huffington: Well, the truth of the
matter is that there are programs, private programs, like Big Brothers, Big Sisters,
that have incredible success rates working with teenagers one on one, and this is really
at the heart of this whole debate about charity. We believe that all the evidence shows that
for compassion to be effective, it has to be personal, it has to be one-on-one. If you are going to help a child get off drugs,
which many of them, unfortunately, are already addicted, or if you can help a child learn
to read, you have to do it on a personal level. By definition, government compassion is institutional. It’s not personal, and that’s why it doesn’t
work. Ben Wattenberg: I want to ask Arianna one
question. Where have conservatives been on this issue
all this time? I think the governor salutes what you’re
doing, I would salute what you’re doing, but the fact of the matter is that if you
go back historically, the idea of conservatives being linked to the word “compassionate”
is a pretty slender reed. And I wonder — Arianna Huffington: Absolutely, and — Ben Wattenberg: — what happened? Arianna Huffington: And it still is today,
unfortunately. I think one of the problems with the Republican
Party right now, and with conservatives in general, is that we still believe, many of
us, that a rising tide will lift all the boats, the whole sort of dream of supply-side economics. It’s not true. A rising tide will not lift all the boats. And that’s why, even though I’m in favor
of a balanced budget, I think this idealization of a balanced budget, as though everything
is going to somehow be well and everything is going to be miraculously cured once we
have a balanced budget in seven years, is really an illusion and it is irresponsible. And I believe that the Republicans are losing
the public debate at the moment precisely because they are speaking like accountants
and they are not speaking in a way that exemplifies the true compassion of cutting government
welfare programs. We should not be cutting government welfare
programs in order to balance 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 be cutting 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 the overwhelming need to balance the budget, and without addressing at the same
time all the other concerns that we’ve been addressing here today. Ben Wattenberg: Governor. Mario 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 the word “compassion.” I’ve discovered — you know, I’ve used
the word as much as anybody. I use words like “sweetness” and “love”
more than most politicians do. It confuses people when you say, “We take
this to be an exercise in compassion.” What I would offer as an argument now is,
look, what I call compassion, helping the children in the ghettos, is really ultimately
a matter of common sense and pragmatism, that unless we make that group productive, we cannot
afford the cost of the failure. We can’t afford the prisons, we can’t
afford the illness, we can’t afford the social disruption, we can’t afford the loss
of productivity. So if you insist on being pragmatic, and that
appears to be the direction of the time, then you have to make a better and more intelligent
investment in rescuing that part of our population that’s failing because that part’s getting
bigger and bigger, it’s not getting smaller, and at one point, it’s going to drag us
down. Ben Wattenberg: I’m still trying to figure
out what you all differ on. And I wonder if this does it, that Arianna
thinks that the federal government programs caused much of the turmoil and terror in our
cities; and you, governor, believe that it would have been even worse if that intervening
role had not taken place. Is that — would you both agree with that? Mario Cuomo: I would agree if someone were
to make the point that some of the poor performance in some of the programs, like, for example,
welfare, had the effect of encouraging people to remain dependent. I would say yes, and that has to be reformed. But — Ben Wattenberg: Has it encouraged out-of-wedlock
birth? Mario Cuomo: In some small number of cases,
it probably did. I would also — and that should be changed,
and we’re changing it in New York and in 34 other states. But I would also say that overall, even with
those imperfections, like the imperfections in defense, like the imperfections in education
and corporate welfare and research, even the imperfections of our legislature, which we
have invested billions in over the years, and they’re still the most unpopular institution
we have, that overall the welfare system has produced a better situation than you would
have had without it. Ben Wattenberg: Would you agree that that
is the difference between your position and Gov. Cuomo’s position, that you think the
federal programs caused it and he thinks it would have been even worse had we not gotten
into it? Arianna Huffington: No, not really. First of all, I don’t think that they caused
it. I think they were a contributing cause. I think other reasons that you have written
about, the breakdown in values, in family, were more important, more significant. I think the fundamental difference between
us is about the present and the future, not about the past. It’s about where should the emphasis be
now? Should it be on community-based solutions
— churches, synagogues, families; or should it be still driven by the government, with
the help of citizens? That’s the fundamental difference. Ben Wattenberg: OK. Thank you, Arianna Huffington. Thank you, Gov. Mario Cuomo. And thank you. You know, at “Think Tank,” we hold the
holidays up to the same rigorous scrutiny that we give every subject. Here are a couple of holiday program ideas
that we considered: no room at the inn — discrimination in ancient Judea. Santa Claus’ girth — lifestyle or genes? Ebenezer Scrooge — cruel miser or fiscal
hero? Our complete holiday greeting can be found
on the World Wide Web at Or we can be reached via email at [email protected] As always, please send your comments and questions
to New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. From all of us at “Think Tank,” we wish
you a happy holiday. I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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