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Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 1999 /1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Time to triangulate? --
SO GEORGE W. BUSH will not criticize Patrick Buchanan, but he will take shots at Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. What's wrong with this picture?

When Bush was first being talked about as a presidential candidate, he was careful to describe himself as a conservative. He was at pains to hire former Reaganites, not Bushites, for his campaign staff. He let it be known that he took advice from the likes the Mayor Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis (an intellectual Republican who has put smaller government principles into action in his city), William Bennett, and conservative Christian professor and author Marvin Olasky.

There would be no Richard Darmans in his administration, he assured worried conservatives. (Darman is the advisor who urged President Bush to break his "No New Taxes" pledge.)

If he tossed the term "compassionate conservatism" around, most conservatives didn't take offense. They've resented their portrayal by the Democrats and the mainstream press as hard-hearted and were delighted to indulge the hope that a conservative candidate might be able to market conservative ideas effectively.

What conservatives did not imagine they would get from Bush was "triangulation." Triangulation is Dick Morris' term for Bill Clinton's strategy of distancing himself from his own party in Congress and from the Republicans. Now Bush appears to be doing the same thing.

Responding to a Republican proposal to spread out payments of the Earned Income Tax Credit over 12 months instead of paying it in a lump sum once a year, Bush let fly at his Republican brethren, saying, "I don't think they should balance their budget on the backs of the poor." That sort of language, redolent of the liberal critique of Republicans, had the feel of a kick in the teeth. He may claim the title compassionate conservative, but Bush is showing no compassion toward conservatives.

Later in the week, things got even worse, with Bush telling a New York audi ence that "too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gemorrah. Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else -- speaking in a sterile language of rates and numbers."

Bush might as well have hung a sign around his neck saying "acorn," because conservatives everywhere were thinking the same despairing thought: It doesn't fall far from the tree.

The ironic thing is, there is plenty to criticize about the way the Republicans have used, or more accurately failed to use, the power they gained in 1994. But it isn't that they've been too hard on the poor or anyone else. The problem has been lack of political courage. They've been capitulating to President Clinton right and left, and spending almost like Democrats.

As Daniel Casse argues in the October Commentary, the issues they've paid most attention to -- devolution of power from Washington, a balanced budget, cuts in defense spending -- have not resonated very well with voters.

Meanwhile, issues that more directly touch people's lives -- market-oriented health-care reform, school choice, legal reform, race and sex preferences, and Social Security privatization -- have been neglected.

But to add fuel to the Democrats' assertions of Republican cruelty shows little party loyalty and poor political judgment, as well. As one angry Republican told The New York Times, "If Bush keeps this up, he'll elect a Democratic House in 2000."

Besides, the conservative critique of America's slide toward Gemorrah (Robert Bork's phrase) has arguably borne positive fruit. Rates of illegitimacy, crime, divorce and other social pathologies have slowed or dropped in the past several years. Conservative warnings may have helped to halt the downward spiral.

Bush must believe that triangulation will help him win. But before he copies Clinton too assiduously, he should reflect that while such tactics helped Clinton win two terms, they also resulted in a hollow presidency.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate