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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 1999 /4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

Kondracke
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Econophone

Bush critiques could help GOP Congress


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- TEXAS GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH'S JABS at congressional Republicans actually could be good for their chances of keeping control of Capitol Hill.

There are three reasons: First, if they listen to him, follow his example and try to become compassionate conservatives, congressional Republicans might enhance their appeal to voters.

Second, Bush's willingness to take on his colleagues lessens the chances that Democrats can win back power in Congress by arguing they are necessary to provide a check against "right wing" excess.

And third, the more Bush is seen as a centrist, the bigger his victory is likely to be, and the greater his chances of enhancing Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Many GOP conservatives, of course, don't see any benefit in Bush's critiques and view them as politically selfish attempts to improve his own image at his party's expense. Some congressional leaders resent his echoing President Clinton in accusing them of trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor" by stretching out earned income tax credit payments to avoid dipping into Social Security.

One leadership aide said the ploy was "quintessential Rove," referring to Bush campaign manager Karl Rove, whom he likened to Dick Morris, author of Clinton's successful "triangulation" strategy in 1995 and 1996.

Bush campaign aides claim that his criticism of the EITC idea was not a Rove strategy or even a Bush strategy -- just the candidate's candid comment on a policy he read about in the newspaper and with which he disagreed.

But then Bush followed up the EITC statement of Sept. 30 with more pops at past GOP mistakes on Oct. 5. These were not offhand, but written in the prepared text of his education speech in New York.

"Too often, on social issues," he said, "my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah," and "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 Congressional Budget Office this and gross national product that."

And, he said, "Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself."

All this elicited howls from the right, with the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson, candidates Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and Free Congress Foundation President Paul Weyrich either accusing him of abandoning the GOP base or warning him to quit doing it.

Some Bush allies claimed the Oct. 5 remarks weren't directed against the GOP Congress, but "disdain for government" sounds a lot like the outlook of House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, and "CBO-GNP" often is the language of GOP budget-whackers.

Until a few weeks ago, the GOP had made it almost an article of religious faith to "remain within the 1997 budget caps," which hardly anyone outside the Beltway understands -- and which Congress couldn't do anyway.

And the GOP performance on patients' rights illustrated anew why the public is dissatisfied with Congress' performance.

All year long, Republican leaders have been serving the interests of the widely distrusted HMO industry and trying to block a patients' rights bill. Finally, as a last-ditch maneuver last week, they pushed a reasonable alternative to the Dingell-Norwood trial lawyer-bonanza bill -- a measure which surely will raise insurance costs and cause workers to lose coverage -- but by that time, it was too late.

Failure to pass any meaningful legislation this year, one budget embarrassment after another, and refusal to negotiate with Clinton all have combined to give Congress a 37 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval rating, worse than its 41-54 rating right after Clinton's impeachment trial.

Congressional leaders ought to listen to Bush. He really does have a different attitude from theirs. He's not a "Rockefeller Republican," as right-wingers allege. He wants to cut taxes, let people own guns, restrict abortions and partially privatize Social Security.

But he does favor "effective and energetic government," which includes using federal influence and money to improve public school performance, not just handing money back to the states.

Bush needs to do more to give Congress -- not to mention the public -- more exact information about what compassionate conservatism means: What kind of tax cuts, Medicare and Social Security reform and health care for the uninsured, for instance?

Meantime, some of Bush's congressional allies say they've been assured he now plans to quit criticizing the GOP Congress. Of course, he doesn't want to provide Democrats with ammunition to fire at his allies. On the other hand, speaking out occasionally should help convince voters he won't be pushed around by congressional conservatives.

If he seems able to handle his party's congressional leaders -- leading with ideas and criticizing when necessary -- voters are likely to be confident in electing both him and them.



JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up

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