Texas Gov. George W. Bush today criticized his party for espousing negative rhetoric, failing to portray a message of inclusiveness and forgetting that conservative policies should benefit those left behind in an affluent society.
Bush's remarks, during a speech on education, marked the second time in a week that the Republican front-runner has challenged his party to rise above the perception of it as a repository of uncaring and mean-spirited ideology. Last week, he stunned many supporters on Capitol Hill when he denounced a congressional GOP budget plan that would save money by deferring tax credits for the working poor.
"Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah," told his audience at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. "Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else, speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, of CBO and GNP. Too often my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself."
He then declared: "This is not an option for conservatives. . . . Our founders rejected cynicism, and cultivated a noble love of country."
As he has throughout this early stage of his campaign, Bush used today's speech to stake out the middle ground in American politics and distance himself from the GOP's right wing. Though Bush has stood with his party on a number of key issues, he has taken opportunities to show that his style of conservatism has a softer edge.
In presenting his second major education initiative, Bush explained how his "compassionate conservatism" would translate to real policies. While his ideas generally hewed closely to long-favored conservative themes, such as school vouchers and charter schools, he indicated his intention to avoid some of the party's hot-button rhetoric and ideas.
For instance, while he said that he would consolidate 60 education programs "into five flexible categories," his aides and advisers -- including former education secretary William J. Bennett -- said the proposal included no plans to downsize or eliminate the Education Department, long a goal of conservatives.
Another example is Bush's plans for testing. He called for mandatory testing of third- through eighth-grade students in math and reading. States where student performance fails to meet a specific standard would lose up to 5 percent of federal funding. States would be able to determine their own method of testing -- a nod to conservatives who oppose national testing, which President Clinton has proposed. But Bush would allow the federal government to use the National Assessment in Education Progress test as, essentially, an audit to verify state test results.
That immediately drew criticism from the campaign of GOP rival Steve Forbes. "It is discouraging to see any Republican presidential contender propose new education mandates and controls at the federal level," said Forbes's national campaign chairman, J. Kenneth Blackwell. At the same time, Democratic National Committee spokesman Jenny Bachus said Bush is "trying to pull the wool over the American people's eyes. People are smart enough to see through his pretty words and look at the policies he's advocating."
Bush's education proposals and his overall message defy standard political orthodoxy that says Republican candidates must run to the right in seeking their party's nomination and move back to the middle for the general election. In Bush's case, he has already moved to the middle -- a luxury his strong front-runner status affords him. By attempting to redefine conservatism, analysts say, Bush has effectively adopted his own brand of triangulation, the term originally used to describe Clinton's political strategy.
Moderate Republicans praised Bush's statements. "We should be more optimistic and support more positive things," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). "We do sometimes come across as almost ascetic and puritanical when it comes to society."
House leaders declined to comment on Bush's remarks, though some said privately they believed they were aimed more at Patrick J. Buchanan and other conservative presidential aspirants rather than at Congress.
Last week, campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Bush was not trying to distance himself from the unpopular Congress, but simply expressing his disagreement on one relatively narrow policy matter. Today, communications director Karen Hughes insisted that Bush was not attacking the GOP but the image created by partisan foes. "There's recognition that conservatives have been misportrayed," she told reporters. "There's recognition that there is a public perception that our party is mean-spirited."
But when a reporter today asked Stephen Goldsmith, Bush's senior domestic policy adviser, about the line in Bush's speech suggesting the party had confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself, he said: "It's intentionally in the speech, and it was meant to send a message."
Bennett, who is advising Bush but has not endorsed anyone, said: "What he wants is a broader party with a different message and never yield the high ground of compassion to the Democrats. They don't deserve it."
Bush unveiled his education policy in a speech last month, offering a plan that would allow some federal money to be spent on private education. Today he proposed a vast expansion of charter schools, calling on the federal government to contribute $300 million to back a $3 billion loan guarantee to finance 2,000 new charter schools. And he said he would support the expansion of tax exempt education savings accounts, increasing the contribution limit from $500 to $5,000 each year, and allow parents to use the accounts to cover expenses for kindergarten through 12th grade, instead of just higher education costs.
In an effort to show that his message is directed at everyone, Bush often will visit a black church administering social programs or a Hispanic charter school on the day that he also appears before a largely white audience. Bush followed that pattern today, the second of a three-day campaign swing through New York. Before his speech to the Manhattan Institute crowd, he stopped at Sisulu Children's Academy in Harlem, New York's first charter school. He was accompanied by Gov. George E. Pataki (R) and former Queens congressman Floyd Flake (D), a proponent of vouchers and leader of one of New York's largest black churches.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Washington contributed to this report.