Texas Gov. George W. Bush has stolen a page from President Clinton's political playbook, distancing himself from the unpopular congressional wing of the Republican Party in the same way Clinton played off congressional Democrats as he mounted his recovery after the GOP landslide of 1994.
Twice in the past week, Bush has sharply criticized his party. A week ago, he charged that congressional Republicans were trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." On Tuesday in New York, he said that his party has been too negative, too pessimistic and too enamored of believing that free markets can solve social problems while ignoring the role of government.
Bush's comments drew a swift and harsh response yesterday from a number of conservatives, including Republican presidential candidates Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, who said Bush sounded like "Clinton-Gore Lite." Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was even more scornful, accusing Bush of sounding "like Nelson Rockefeller" and of leaving Republicans "dying on the congressional battlefield."
Bush attempted to soften his tone yesterday, praising congressional Republicans for passing welfare reform in 1996 and claiming that he was really critiquing a caricature of his party made by Democrats. "I was making the case that a conservative philosophy is the compassionate philosophy," he told reporters.
But most in both parties believed Bush was aiming his criticism at the Republicans in Congress -- and Democrats privately were admiring of his moves to reach out to independents and suburbanites who may have been turned off by the party in recent years.
If Bush's criticisms represent a shrewd strategy to position himself in opposition to the most extreme forces within his party -- his version of Clinton's "triangulation" -- they also reflect something more than a simple move to the center. The reality is that Bush has not strayed dramatically from conservative orthodoxy -- from abortion to guns to tax cuts to school vouchers.
Democrats say his compassionate rhetoric masks policies that would have the opposite effect. "He still supports the heart and soul of Republican congressional agenda, from a surplus-killing tax cut to [school] vouchers to privatizing Social Security," said Bruce Reed, Clinton's domestic policy adviser. "So whether a little bit of clever positioning now does him much good when the fur starts to fly next fall remains to be seen."
Democrats also assert -- and Bush advisers privately concede -- that because Bush successfully forced congressional Republicans to back away from a proposal to delay payments under the earned income tax credit (EITC), he faces increased pressure to weigh in on controversial debates in Congress that he might otherwise hope to avoid.
"It was a good short-term move," one administration official said, "but now he's established that his silence will mean consent."
However that part of the fight plays out, the larger meaning of Bush's rhetoric is clear. The Texas governor's effort to recast the face of his party represents a potentially watershed moment for Republicans as they struggle to emerge from the fallout of the Newt Gingrich-led, anti-government revolution of the past half dozen years.
Although Bush's remarks in New York, coming so soon after his criticism of Congress last week, heightened the effect of what he had to say, the seeds of a recast conservatism have been evident in other recent policy speeches.
Those speeches offer "an entirely new path for the Republican Party in contrast to the last six years," said policy analyst Marshall Wittmann, a supporter of Arizona Sen. John McCain. It is a path that asserts a role for limited, but activist, government at the federal level, coupled with the greater emphasis on using government, in collaboration with charitable institutions, to help the poor and working poor.
Bush advisers argue he hopes to reshape conservatism, not embrace moderation. "The goal is not to compromise conservative principles, but to apply those principles to the job of helping real human beings," said Mike Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter and someone who has long been part of the movement to build a compassionate conservatism within the party.
From the vantage point of Bush's advisers, this governing conservatism would elevate the policies and activism of Republican governors such as Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan and GOP mayors like Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York and Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis. As Bush told reporters yesterday, "What I said [Tuesday] was simply this: The conservative philosophy is changing America."
His rivals for the nomination sharply disputed Bush's interpretation of his own remarks. "I think he's a pessimist about taking on the liberals on the size of government and winning," Bauer said. "And he's a pessimist about taking on cultural decline and winning." Forbes said, "He comes across as someone who is embarrassed and apologetic about the principles of the Republican Party, of more freedom and less government."
There is no question that Bush's rhetoric has been strong and pointed in attempting to redefine his party, carefully aimed at words and phrases that once were rallying cries among the Gingrich conservatives.
In his Indianapolis speech about the role of faith-based institutions, he criticized the "Leave Us Alone" grass-roots movement within the party, which was crucial in the 1994 takeover of Congress.
In New York, he said that on social issues, the party has too often "painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah," which happened to be the title of a book on cultural decline by Robert H. Bork, a hero to conservatives whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected in 1987.
Bush supporters said the criticism was not meant to single out Bork but to reflect the belief that conservative policies in the states and cities governed by Republican governors and mayors -- not just a healthy economy -- had helped reduce crime and teenage pregnancy and move people from welfare to work.
Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, a Forbes supporter, attacked Bush for unfairly singling out Bork and said in a statement circulated by the Forbes campaign that the governor had revealed himself to be "a moderate politician trying to define cultural conservatism out of the mainstream."
But other Republicans said that Bush's view on the debate about cultural decline enjoys support among many social conservatives.
Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, said the Bush speech was not even discussed at the weekly meeting of conservative activists that he hosts each Wednesday. One reason, he suggested, is that Bush has embraced so many conservative policies. "Which is why his competitors have so much trouble getting traction by saying, `Don't vote for him, I'm more conservative.' " he added. "They're not, particularly."
Republicans in Congress, many of whom have endorsed Bush, may be so desperate to win in 2000 that they are reluctant to speak out against him. But Wittmann also said Bush's rhetoric reflects shifts in conservative thinking. "There's a whole range of issues -- abortion, education are two that come to mind -- where conservatives have shifted their focus."
In some ways, Bush has had the best of both worlds. He could embrace the GOP's $800 billion tax cut bill -- even though he thought more of the benefits should go to the working poor -- because he knew Clinton would veto it. He could attack the EITC proposal secure in the knowledge that some staunchly conservative policy analysts agreed with him.
But Democrats believe his day of reckoning is still to come. Not only will he be drawn into every controversial debate in Congress, but eventually he will be forced to show how he would embrace massive tax cuts without cutting critical domestic spending programs.
"If this is more than a one-time stunt, then he's got to be willing to speak out against the larger policies whose implications are very deep setbacks for working poor families," a Clinton administration official said.
Bush advisers say they welcome that debate. Republicans must show Americans "that we care a lot about people," Bush said. "Presidential campaign years sometimes define the party."
Staff writer Terry M. Neal, traveling with Bush, contributed to this report.