"The only difference between compassionate conservatism and conservatism is that under compassionate conservatism they tell you they’re not going to help you but they’re really sorry about it.“
— Prime Minister Tony Blair
Defying the will of the majority of Utah voters, Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law a limited expansion of the Medicaid program, thereby excluding 60,000 Utahns from health insurance coverage.
His argument: the law "balances Utah's sense of compassion and frugality." Which undoubtedly was the argument of the priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded Jew in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In telling the story, Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned with balancing compassion with frugality. Before lifting the man up, taking him to an inn, and paying for his care, the Samaritan doesn’t ask if the wounded man fell below the poverty line — or wonder if he is sufficiently self-reliant.
Herbert’s justification, reflective of George Orwell’s apocalyptic novel “1984,” is “newspeak,” which essentially translates as saying a nice thing while meaning a bad thing. Once you strip away the pretty prose designed to obscure the motives, you realize that the governor and the Legislature believe Utah voters are sentimentalists incapable of, so to speak, putting a “governor” on their compassion.
Which apparently is why we in Utah need to be protected from our tendency to be compassionate. It seems the GOP governor and legislators feel they have to protect Utahns’ better angels, the majority of whom voted Yes, from being too compassionate and not nearly frugal enough. Yes, too much compassion is clearly one of our biggest problems.
Such “compassionate conservatism” on which the governor insists must certainly be assuring to the 60,000 lower-income Utahns excluded from coverage, especially those families with children, some of whom insist on getting sick, in spite of the government’s insistence on their frugality.
Perhaps we should ask the governor precisely how one is able to “balance ... compassion and frugality."
When he says “compassion,” isn’t he referring to sick poor people? And aren’t the 60,000 people he excludes from Medicaid as likely to get sick as the more fortunate and desperately poor?
And when he says “frugality,” that’s money, right? And don’t you “balance” by adding and subtracting? And doesn’t that mean choosing between adding money or subtracting people?
All of which is a reductio ad absurdum of reducing people to numbers, which is a kind of malevolent math cloaked by Herbert’s bafflegab.
If other states are able to provide medical services to the category of people we refuse, precisely how does that make us “compassionate”? And wouldn’t a better word for “frugality” be “stingy” or “miserly” or “callous”?
The challenge we have understanding the despair the GOP is sowing among tens of thousands of Utah’s low-income families is that “60,000” may not remind us of many faces. The reason Feed the Children and other charities show us a single suffering child is that our imaginations are defeated by big math. (More’s the pity.)
If you are poor and know poor people and see their faces when they are unable to pay insurance premiums or buy prescription drugs for their kids, you get it.
But the governor and the Legislature do not.
Or maybe they do, but are simply more “frugal” than they are “compassionate.”
And, in truth, it turns out the governor and legislators’ plan isn’t all that frugal. According to The Hill, “The bill signed by Herbert would cover far fewer people, and cost state and federal taxpayers more money, than the plan voters approved in November.”
Robert Rees teaches religion at Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.
Clifton Jolley is president of Advent Communications, Ogden.