'Armies of Compassion' in Bush's Plans
At a time when his rivals for the Republican nomination are offering detailed policy prescriptions, Bush for President Inc. remains a work in progress. He has settled on the outlines of a governing blueprint, but has not decided many of the crucial details that will fill out his political persona nationally.
In a wide-ranging interview on domestic issues last week, Bush said he would use the White House as a bully pulpit to raise educational standards and spur innovation, cut taxes to ensure economic growth and "certainly hope" to reform Social Security and Medicare without cutting benefits.
He also said government must be alert to the "danger that lurks" for some workers from an economy in transition and should care for society's most vulnerable citizens. But he would not use government to solve all these problems. Instead he said he would try to invigorate "a civil society" by encouraging churches and charities -- "little armies of compassion" -- to help combat persistent social problems, such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy or welfare dependency.
"There is a role for government," Bush said, "but there is also a role for institutions that are value-laden, value-oriented and that exist all across America."
Throughout the interview, Bush spoke in practical language shorn of ideological overtones. Not once did he use the word "conservative" to describe his approach to governing. But his policy prescriptions nonetheless revealed conservative governing instincts.
For Bush, government is neither the enemy nor the answer. But he objected to suggestions that his campaign will offer voters a Republican version of President Clinton's centrist New Democrat philosophy.
"There's too much focus on central government," he said of the president's approach. Bush added, "The role of government is to free people to make decisions and choices on their own. There is a role for government, but it is to create an environment in which entrepreneurship can flourish."
Like many conservatives, Bush believes the federal government should give state and local governments more flexibility to design their own solutions to problems. But at times, Bush embraced ideas straight out of Clinton's playbook, from the principle of linking federal education dollars to local school performance to the use of V-chips to help parents keep violent or sexual content on television away from their children. And like Clinton, he said government should provide opportunity but not attempt to guarantee results. "You can't have equal outcomes," he said.
And his "compassionate conservatism" has limits. "I do believe there is a role for government, particularly when it comes to vulnerable folks," he said. "The question is how you define vulnerable. The temptation is to define everyone as vulnerable."
Bush spoke in his Texas Capitol office a day after the Littleton, Colo., school massacre and said he knows of no law "that says you'll love your neighbor" or that would prevent "the evil [that] crept into these boys' hearts."
He expressed support for some gun control measures, including the ban on assault weapons and laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of juveniles. But he said he did not believe the waiting period for the purchase of handguns that is part of the Brady Act does much good, saying he prefers instant background checks.
With many Americans alarmed by the proliferation of guns, Bush defended his support for legislation in Texas that allows a person to carry a concealed weapon. "We live in a dangerous society," Bush said. "People feel like they need to defend themselves. . . . We need to know who they are and they should be licensed and trained." He added that the concealed-carry law addresses "the act of someone protecting themselves as opposed to the purchasing and spread of guns."
Before he can hit the campaign trail, Bush must navigate the final weeks of the Texas Legislature's biennial session, where a number of his initiatives are in some jeopardy. In the meantime, he and his advisers are building a campaign platform.
On taxes, Bush said he would present a plan for a flatter and simpler tax code. But with some Republicans calling for 10 percent across-the-board cuts and others recommending even deeper reductions, he offered no hints about the size of his tax package, how much he would cut income tax rates or what other tax cuts would be included. "I don't have the particulars yet in mind," he said. "I've got a pretty good sense of where I want to head on a lot of issues."
Bush said the principal goal of his tax plan is to stimulate economic growth and productivity. A second goal is to return government surpluses to taxpayers, once "basic needs" of society have been met.
Given his constant refrain about not leaving people behind, how would he assure that the tax cuts benefit the middle or lower middle class and not just the rich? "That's a very important question," he said. "That's a question that's being asked." But he provided no answer.
Bush said he has a clearer sense of the direction his Social Security reform plan would take, but nonetheless said repeatedly that the next president will have to forge a bipartisan consensus to be successful on that front.
"I approve of the lock boxing the Social Security money," he said, referring to plans to prohibit spending the anticipated Social Security surpluses on other programs. "I don't believe we ought to have a tax increase to make the plan whole. And I like the idea of individual retirement accounts, in essence private accounts."
Bush said he would fund those accounts with a portion of the payroll tax paid by all workers, which would be invested under government-drafted guidelines. "You can't put it in one oil well," he said. Bush added, however, that he has not decided how much of the tax to divert to these mandatory accounts. "Therein lies the rub," he said.
On Medicare, Bush said he was attracted to the plan drafted by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), co-chairman of a Medicare advisory panel that failed in its efforts to forge a set of recommendations for reforming the system.
"I thought many elements of the Breaux plan were attractive to me," Bush said. "The idea of having a basket of opportunity with premiums subsidized at the federal level, based on means testing. But I'm working on that." Bush also said, "The Breaux plan didn't cut benefits." But then he acknowledged that the plan did recommend raising the age of eligibility for Medicare. "Okay," he said with a laugh. "I've got it. I beg your pardon. Learning the terminology."
Two years ago, Bush belittled Clinton's involvement in education policy, saying the president sounded more like a governor by talking about school uniforms and, said Bush, by hijacking Bush's Texas plan for ending social promotion and improving students' reading skills.
Now as he looks toward a presidential campaign, Bush described the role of a president more generously. He implied that the model he has followed in Texas, which involves a strong role for the state in establishing and monitoring school standards while giving local districts flexibility to meet them, would also work from Washington.
"The role of the federal government, the role of the president is to set a vision for education that will really help districts understand and help people understand that we don't want anybody left behind, particularly when it comes to educating our children," he said. "Starting with this: high standards."
Bush said he would encourage "results-oriented systems" and measure all federal education programs to see whether they assure high standards locally. On Clinton's State of the Union proposal to link federal money to school performance, a measure many Republicans find intrusive, Bush said, "In principle I would not necessarily oppose it."
Bush said he would use the presidency to spur competition and innovation in the schools and said he believed teachers' unions represent an obstacle to those efforts. "Yes, I do," he said.
Although he has been unsuccessful in persuading the Texas Legislature to enact a modest school voucher program, Bush said he would make vouchers a priority as president. Noting vouchers were "public enemy number one" to some advocates of public schools, Bush added, "We've got to figure out how to encourage the spread of vouchers so as to improve public schools and to convince people it will improve public schools. And we have not done a good job yet in Texas, apparently."
As a governor and a candidate, Bush has emphasized policies of inclusion and says the GOP must reach out to minorities and women. But in the aftermath of a vicious, racially motivated crime in his state, the killing of a black man in Jasper, Tex., who was chained and dragged behind a pickup truck, Bush had little to say about race relations in America. Asked why, he took issue with the the question. "I spoke out as loud and strongly as I could and applauded the verdict," he said. "One of the things we can do at the government level is to say there will be a consequence, and there is a consequence in the state of Texas and that's death."
Asked whether he believes there is persistent racism in America, he replied, "I think there is hatred in people's hearts, in some people's hearts." But he has not said whether he would sign hate crimes legislation pending in the Texas Legislature although he opposes adding gays to its protections.
On the issue of racial preferences, Bush said he supports "affirmative access" -- guaranteeing admission to college based on performance -- rather than affirmative action and said government programs designed to encourage minority participation in business often ended up rewarding the same people "over and over again."
He said the 1996 Hopwood decision that eliminated the use of racial preferences in admissions at the University of Texas "to the extent that it eliminated race was good," but he added that the law school, the target of the lawsuit, "needs to go out and recruit." Asked about those at the law school who argued the Hopwood decision will make it more difficult to attract minority students, he said, "Of course they did because they weren't out there recruiting."
Three times Bush was asked whether he agreed with California's Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative approved in 1996. Three times, he avoided answering the question directly.
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