latimes.com: On many issues, Bush is hardly a new Republican
WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- He's the kind of Republican who speaks to civil rights groups other GOP leaders have shunned. He is trying to rid the party platform of a long-standing plank that calls for abolishing the Education Department.
And he wants to accept his party's presidential nomination at a "different kind of convention"--one that showcases women and minorities.
In those and other ways, George W. Bush is building his presidential bid around the
notion that he is a "different kind of Republican"--more compassionate, less divisive, not like those hard-nosed partisans who won control of Congress five years ago.
But in his views on specific issues of greatest concern to the party's hard core, Bush
turns out to be a remarkably conventional kind of Republican.
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He supports sweeping tax cuts and a massive missile defense system. He opposes
abortion--except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life--and is a reliable
supporter of gun owners' rights. He has a voucher plan to promote school choice and
wants to partially privatize Social Security.
"On everybody's central issue within the Reagan coalition, he's there on your issue,"
said Grover Norquist, a leading conservative strategist who is head of
Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform.
To the extent Bush also has mapped out a more expansive, and expensive, role for
government, he departs from party orthodoxy. But so have a lot of other Republicans in
Congress, where anti-government rhetoric has largely given way to a brand of activism
that aims for wide voter appeal--new drug benefits under Medicare, tax credits to
increase access to health insurance, increased spending for education and more.
In that sense, Bush's ascendancy reflects a broader shift among Republicans toward
an embrace of pragmatism--a change that increasingly has made the conservative
"revolution" led by Newt Gingrich in 1994 that won the GOP control of Congress seem
more like an aberration than a harbinger.
Frozen out of the White House and seeing their congressional majority steadily
shrink since the '94 election, Republicans are hungry to reverse their fortunes. Some
committed conservatives, such as Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), remain undeterred, but
others are trying to smooth the rough edges of their Gingrich-era image to heighten their appeal to swing voters.
'A role for government to play'
Bush has taken that a step further, striking out in new directions in areas such as
education and aid to the poor. He drove that home last year by publicly upbraiding
House GOP leaders for considering cuts in tax breaks for the working poor.
"He definitely thinks there is a role for government to play," said Ari Fleischer,
spokesman for the Bush campaign.
Bush's efforts have invited comparisons between his "compassionate conservatism"
and President Clinton's efforts to push the Democratic Party to the center. But none of
Bush's departures from the traditional GOP party line are as dramatic as when Clinton
infuriated liberals by endorsing welfare reform, analysts say.
In Bush's case, "the change is more in aesthetics and less in substance," said
Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "Perhaps [Bush] accepts a larger role for government than some conservatives, but that has been a transformation within conservative circles as well."
Sharing Bush's moderate, conciliatory political style is his choice for a running mate,
Dick Cheney. But Cheney as a House member from 1979 to '89 was so
conservative--even more so than Bush on issues such as abortion--it may undercut the
Texas governor's claim to be a different kind of Republican.
Indeed, Bush's own handling of the abortion issue demonstrates both the extent and
limits of his willingness to challenge one of the most explosive elements of GOP
orthodoxy. Although he has opposed abortion, he has soft-pedaled the issue and said
he believes the country "is not ready" to support the party platform's call for a
constitutional amendment banning all abortions.
Still, he made clear he would not push to change the tough anti-abortion platform
language. And he backed away from a fight with his party's anti-abortion wing by
choosing Cheney and passing over other possible running mates, such as Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge, who support abortion rights.
Bush's style will be on vivid display as the party's convention opens Monday in
Philadelphia. "We will be talking about issues like education and Social Security, which had not been center stage at Republican conventions before," said Andy Card, the convention's general co-chairman.
During prime time, the GOP's congressional leaders will find themselves largely on
the sidelines. Among the convention headliners, the only member of Congress is Sen.
John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bush's principal challenger for the nomination whose appeal
was greater among independents than among the party faithful.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott
(R-Miss.) will hold the traditional roles of chairmen of the convention. But the three
other Republicans who have been named deputy chairmen demonstrate the kind of
scrupulous attention to diversity usually associated with caucus-conscious Democrats:
Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, the House's only black Republican; Rep. Jennifer
Dunn of Washington, the highest-ranking woman among GOP congressional leaders;
and Henry Bonilla of Texas, one of a handful of Latino Republicans in Congress.
That reflects a central element of Bush's effort to recast the party's image--his bid to
be more welcoming to women and minorities. Earlier this month, he addressed a
meeting of the NAACP and reminded the audience that other recent GOP presidential
nominees, including Bob Dole in 1996, had shunned the group.
Willing to offer new government programs
Many skeptics said the appearance signaled merely a difference in style, not
substance. But Bush has differed concretely from Gingrich-era Republicans in his
willingness to address social problems with new government programs--from adoption assistance to youth mentoring to science education to community health clinics.
"My fear is that Bush is trying to define 'compassionate conservatism' as a
willingness to spend money," said Stephen Moore, an analyst with the Cato Institute, a
libertarian think tank. "Almost every week there's been some new Bush spending
Bush's tendency is to address social problems by providing grants to states or
nonprofit organizations. His initiative to improve recruitment and training of teachers
would channel aid through the states. His plan to strengthen the role of fathers in families would give money to community and faith-based organizations.
His spending proposals seem large by the standards of GOP fiscal conservatives,
but they pale in comparison to the size of those pushed by the presumed Democratic
presidential nominee, Vice President Al Gore. For example, Bush has proposed
spending $2.4 billion over five years on teacher training and recruitment; Gore would
spend $16 billion over 10 years on those aims.
Bush's education agenda is a mix of old GOP standbys and new directions. He
would, like most in his party, like to give states more say in how they spend federal
education aid--but in return he would take the more intrusive step of requiring states to
test students in math and reading every year from third through eighth grade.
His effort to eliminate the platform proviso calling for abolition of the Department of
Education is a symbolic slap at the kind of anti-Washington conservatism that brought
the GOP to power in 1994. But few Republicans push that idea anymore.
"That has become a misunderstood symbol," said Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr.
(R-Okla.). "Let's take a more realistic approach. It ain't going to happen."
If Bush becomes president, the most pressing issues he and Congress are likely to
face will be how to use the burgeoning federal budget surplus and the related questions of how to shore up Social Security and Medicare for the future. On those questions, Bush's ambitious proposals are in sync with his party's conservative core.
Bush's proposal to cut taxes by $483 billion over five years is an amalgam of tax
cuts that long have been on the GOP wish list--reducing taxes for married couples,
expanding family tax credits, slashing income tax rates. Indeed, he has gone even further than congressional Republicans, calling for a far deeper cut in the tax rates than they had proposed.
The plan has its "compassionate conservative" twist, providing some tax cuts aimed
at the working poor--it would cut the lowest tax bracket rate from 15% to 10% and
double the $500-per-child tax credit. But the rationale for the plan sounded like
traditional anti-government Republicanism.
"A government with unlimited funds soon becomes a government of unlimited
reach," Bush said when he released it.
Bush's ambitious Social Security proposal--which would allow younger workers to
divert part of their payroll taxes into accounts they could invest in the stock market--is
in line with congressional proposals that have enjoyed significant GOP support. But
those bills have languished in Congress because of anxiety about raising the issue in an election year. So what was groundbreaking was not the substance of Bush's Social
Security blueprint, but the fact he was willing to take the political risk of advancing it.
A big departure on Medicare
Bush has not yet issued a detailed plan on reforming Medicare, but the broad
outlines of his thinking resemble the report of a commission that recommended having
the government pay a share of seniors' health insurance costs while allowing individuals to select whatever plan suited them. That would be a big departure from the current system in which the government directly pays doctors and hospitals.
Prescription drug coverage would be available only to those who selected health plans that provided such a benefit.
That puts Bush in sync with many congressional Republicans--as well as some
moderate Democrats--who supported the commission's recommendations. But such
overhaul proposals died this year in Congress in the face of stiff opposition from Clinton and most other Democrats.
Whatever his agreements and disagreements with Capitol Hill, many Republicans
say that what sets Bush apart from Gingrich-era leaders is not his policy positions but
his Reaganesque optimism, his ability to convey traditional conservative views with a
smile on his face.
"I do think he presents a new model for us on the campaign trail with his natural
enthusiasm and optimism," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).
"George Bush is going to demonstrate a new axiom: Good manners make good