Texas Gov. George W. Bush is giving some conservative Republicans heartburn by distancing himself from the Republican Congress. He's insisting that America is not some libertine sinkhole "slouching toward Gomorrah" and offering the radical notion that the federal budget should not be balanced "on the backs of the poor."
The conventional view is that Bush is "moving to the center" -- or to "the squishy center," as social issues troubadour Gary Bauer would have it. He is said to be copying Bill Clinton's successful policy of "triangulation" by marking out ground that is neither conventionally Republican nor Democratic and liberal. But framing this election as a mad scramble to the center by Bush and everyone else oversimplifies what's going on. It's true that Clinton's successes are on Bush's mind. The Texas governor watched up close as his father's presidency was upended by this then-upstart Arkansas governor whom Republicans despised and dismissed. "I believe everyone refights their last campaign, and he's refighting his father's 1992 campaign," says Robert Shrum, an adviser to Vice President Al Gore.
But Bush isn't just aping Bill Clinton. There's no ideological jujitsu going on here. Bush is simply saying commonsensical things that ought not be controversial. It is a sign of how rigid some parts of the Republican Party have become that Bush's mild statements are interpreted as fighting words.
Take his Gomorrah line. A lot of conservatives didn't like it because it seemed to be an attack on their beloved Robert Bork, who wrote a book called "Slouching Towards Gomorrah." Okay, I admire people who stand up for their friends. But the evidence -- about murder rates, the welfare rolls, even the number of abortions -- suggests that if we're slouching anywhere, it's away from Gomorrah.
This is not the view of some wild countercultural McGovernik. It's what William Bennett, who makes his living as a conservative culture czar, argues in his new, "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators." Bennett provided Bush information for his Gomorrah speech -- which was actually an education speech -- and later defended it in the New York Times. Does anyone seriously believe that getting to Bill Bennett's right on cultural issues is either sensible or politically practical?
Or take Bush's "on the backs of the poor" critique of House Republican leaders. He was talking about their gimmickry in proposing to stretch out payments of the earned income tax credit, which lifts the incomes of the working poor. The earned income tax credit is so radical that Ronald Reagan liked it. Many Republicans in the Senate were ready to ditch the House plan before Bush spoke out. Bush's move was shrewd because he got great credit for courage, even though all he did was anticipate what the Republican Congress would eventually have to do anyway.
But Bush has put Democrats into a tricky position. The party's congressional wing loves anything Bush says that paints Washington Republicans as extremist. "In the short run, the advantage would be for us if he characterizes the Republicans the way he has," says House Democratic Whip David Bonior of Michigan.
Yet the more Democrats identify with what Bush says, the more they validate his claim of independence from an unpopular Republican Congress. "It obviously helps him by putting him more in the mainstream," says Bonior. Strengthening the likely Republican presidential nominee is hardly in the interests of Democrats who want to take back the House and Senate.
Shrum, the Democratic veteran and Gore adviser, thinks Bush will eventually pay a price for the good press he's getting now. Now that he has started answering questions on what Congress does, it will be hard for him to stop. "He's setting himself up to comment on everything the Republican Congress does," says Shrum. "That's going to be discomfiting for him."
Here's Bush's core problem: Virtually every major issue on the public agenda -- the health care bill of rights passed by the House Thursday, a minimum wage increase, campaign reform, expansions of health coverage, education, finding a better balance between work and family -- drives home a view of government as an agent of reform. That's not the same as bland centrism, and it's not the predominant view in the Republican Party.
Bush sees this. He's responding accordingly. But simply reacting to an agenda set by Democrats is perilous for Republicans in the long run. Bush and his Republican sparring partners in Congress will have to change the subject. To do so, they'll have to get together eventually, whether they want to or not.