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DLC | The New Democrat | August 1, 2000
The Great Pretender
Bush is the Ally, Not the Scourge, of Conservative Ideologues

By Ed Kilgore

In one of the most obvious of his many imitations of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush calls himself "a different kind of Republican." This year's GOP National Convention, we were told, would be a "different kind of Republican convention." Indeed, the main purpose of Bush's message of "compassionate conservatism" is to dissociate himself from those espousing traditional conservatism -- most notably, the Republican-controlled Congress and hard-right activists.

What's interesting about this tactic is that the Republicans Bush is implicitly repudiating were his most avid supporters from the get-go. Even before the Republican presidential primaries, Bush was endorsed by a majority of Republicans in Congress, including most of its conservative icons. He enjoyed early support from such major Christian right figures as the Rev. Pat Robertson and former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed. He went out of his way to recruit advisers associated with the Reagan administration rather than his father's. Conservative journalist Robert Novak, an obsessive guardian against any renaissance of Republican centrism, has repeatedly vouched for Bush's conservative orthodoxy on key issues.

Once Sen. John McCain emerged as Bush's main primary rival, the bond between the candidate and the twin towers of the Republican old guard -- conservative activists and GOP congressmen -- became airtight. In the crucial post-New Hampshire primaries in South Carolina, Michigan, and Virginia, the Bush campaign became as intense a conservative crusade as the Reagan campaigns of 1976 and 1980 or even the Goldwater campaign of 1964. Right-to-lifers, supply-siders, Christian conservatives, the gun lobby, corporate interests, anti-government zealots, and GOP congressional barons supported Bush with amazing unanimity. Most of all, conservatives exercised an implicit veto power over the GOP vice presidential selection, and Bush fulfilled his side of the deal by picking the relentlessly conservative Dick Cheney. Yet Bush now campaigns as someone who's "different" from his own campaign's shock troops.

He's No Bill Clinton

Some observers have likened conservative support for Bush in 2000 to liberal support for Clinton, a "different kind of Democrat," in 1992. The premise is that today's conservatives, like yesterday's liberals, are willing to support a centrist candidate simply because he might win. But the analogy breaks down at three crucial points.

First, Clinton did not win significant liberal ideological support in 1992 until he cinched the nomination. His original base was the Democratic Leadership Council, his fellow Democratic governors, and Southern Democrats -- not the AFL-CIO, the Rainbow Coalition, the House Democratic Caucus, or Americans for Democratic Action, the analogs to the conservative institutions that supported Bush from the start.

Second, Bush's conservative support became most intense precisely at the moment when his electability was most in question: after the New Hampshire primary, when McCain was running well ahead of Bush in general-election trial heats, and when Bush had lost his lead over Al Gore in the polls. Conservatives' support for Bush was ideological, not pragmatic.

Third, for all his rhetoric about being "different," Bush has taken far fewer policy positions at odds with his party's ideological extremists than Clinton did in 1992. Clinton, after all, parted with liberal activists on deficit reduction, trade expansion, welfare reform, crime, and national defense. To date, Bush's major heresy from conservative orthodoxy is his contention that Washington can play a constructive role in public education. Moreover, he's made enough concessions to backers of public support for private schools to make even that deviation relatively minor.

On the core issue of economic and fiscal policy, Bush is solidly conservative. Early in the campaign, he advocated a tax-cut package that was even larger than that endorsed by House Republicans. (It was so large, in fact, that House Republicans voted down a replica of it during consideration of the federal budget resolution.) Bush's plan was widely hailed in conservative opinion circles as proof that he would not repeat his father's mistake of elevating the goal of fiscal discipline above tax reduction.

Like most conservatives, Bush has largely abandoned the supply-siders' economic argument for across-the-board tax cuts. Instead, he favors the moral argument that surplus revenues should be returned proportionately to taxpayers as a matter of right. He has aggressively drawn attention to the positive impact of across-the-board tax reductions on the working poor, while failing to mention that most benefits would go to high earners. The skewing of benefits to the wealthy is even more evident in Bush's support for repeal of the estate tax and the massive new exclusion he would provide for savings used for private school tuition expenses.

Hot-Button Social Issues

On the hot-button social issues of abortion and guns, Bush's claim to be a "different kind of Republican" is wholly rhetorical.

Early in his campaign, Bush created a stir by suggesting that he would focus on limited abortion restrictions rather than pushing for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortions generally. But this position reflected a shift in strategy among anti-abortion advocates rather than an abandonment of their cause. This was made plain by immediate statements of support for Bush's comments by Robertson and the chairman of the National Right to Life Committee. Right-to-lifers were exceptionally active in Bush's primary battle against McCain. Not coincidentally, in the heat of that struggle, Bush endorsed the plank in past Republican platforms calling for a human-life amendment to the Constitution. Also, conservatives universally interpreted Bush's pledge to appoint "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court as a promise to create a bench that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Bush's record on gun violence is even more orthodox. His recent announcement of support for voluntary distribution of gun locks and for closing a tiny loophole in gun show background checks should not obscure his consistent advocacy of the bedrock gun-lobby principle that more guns, not fewer guns, is the best way to fight gun violence.

On the broad outlines of domestic policy, Bush has a habit of advancing at least one positive policy proposal in every area, often a small and symbolic proposal designed to deflect charges of anti-Washington zealotry. But in almost every case -- from environmental protection, to Social Security and Medicare, to health insurance availability, to housing and urban policy -- Bush has taken positions shared by most congressional Republicans and tolerated by conservative opinion leaders.

On foreign policy and defense issues, Bush has developed a reputation as a responsible internationalist, mainly on the basis of his father's presidential record and the nature of his advisers. Nevertheless, he has embraced two conservative totems in defense policy: increasing defense spending as an end in itself and immediately deploying a missile defense system. More troubling, Bush has endorsed the recent Republican trend towards unilateralism in foreign policy, supporting the Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and tacitly favoring unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The Biggest Mystery

The biggest mystery surrounding Bush's relationship with his conservative friends is not ideological, but temperamental. How independent will he be of such congressional allies as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (an early Bush supporter) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott? One of Clinton's most important contributions since 1995 has been his use of the bully pulpit and the veto threat to rein in the Republican Congress' excesses. Given the strong possibility of continued Republican control of Congress, it's proper to ask whether Bush would curb conservative hubris or become its most prominent pitchman.

Bush has publicly parted ways with the Republican congressional leadership exactly twice since announcing his candidacy. The first time was last fall, when he opposed House GOP efforts to close a federal budget gap by stretching out Earned Income Tax Credit payments to the working poor. This intervention genuinely annoyed House Republicans. But it was defended on policy grounds by such conservative figures as the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, and on political grounds by none other than Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. The second time was this past May, when Bush persuaded Senate Republicans to scuttle a House GOP effort to place deadlines on U.S. troop deployments in Kosovo, at the very moment when Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was cracking down on opposition parties. Bush opposed this step not on policy grounds, but as a restraint on his prerogatives as a potential commander in chief.

Much has been made of the Texas governor's record of friendly dealings with Democrats in his home state. But the ability to get along with conservative Texas Democrats in the intimate surroundings of Austin is not a particularly clear indication of how a President Bush would act in Washington's vastly more polarized atmosphere. Bush certainly would seek to recruit a handful of congressional Democrats to create legislative majorities for Republican legislation, much as House Speaker Newt Gingrich did from time to time. But there's little evidence to suggest that he could or would emulate President Clinton's success in crafting large bipartisan compromises on issues such as the budget, welfare reform, and international trade.

The most important clue Bush has offered about his relationship with the conservative movement and the GOP establishment in Congress is the first critical decision he made as the putative presidential nominee: choosing former Secretary of Defense and Rep. Dick Cheney as his running mate. Despite his mild demeanor and Beltway insider connections, Cheney's record in Congress was decidedly not "compassionate," including votes against funding Head Start, against a ban on "cop killer" bullets, against a waiting period on handgun purchases, and against renewal of the Clean Water Act. He was a fervent supply-sider before the economic theory (long since discredited) became GOP orthodoxy. Cheney uniquely personifies both the conservative ideological impulse and the Republican establishment.

The Cheney selection strengthens the case that Bush is an ally of conservative ideologues, not their scourge. His election could well consolidate the Republican Revolution of 1994 rather than mark a new era of bipartisanship and "compassion." At the very least, with Bush's candidacy relying heavily on positive public assessments of his leadership qualities, his relationship to his friends can and should become a major topic of scrutiny and discussion down the homestretch of the 2000 campaign.

Ed Kilgore is policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council.