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Jewish World Review June 16, 1999/ 2 Tamuz 5759

David Limbaugh

David Limbaugh
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Compassionate conservatism: face-lift or body transplant? -- NOT IN RECENT MEMORY has there been so much enthusiasm about a presidential candidate as there is about George W. Bush. Is this all media hype or something more?

The launching of his campaign in Iowa proved that genuine excitement exists among the voters about his candidacy. This would be understandable if his appeal were merely among Republican voters. They have been steadily disappointed since it became obvious that their 1994 congressional majority was not going to usher in a new era of conservatism.

But Bush's magnetism is transcending party lines; there is no other way to explain his phenomenal poll numbers. With all the build up and anticipation, he is being treated like a political messiah.

Some say that Bush's prohibitive popularity has nothing to do with him personally. They attribute it to his name and to his theme of compassionate conservatism.

During this marathon pre-campaign season, I too have wondered whether the Republicans' fixation on Bush was grossly superficial -- a tattered party in desperate search for a winner, a unifier. But after observing and hearing him, I am convinced that he is more than the son of a former president, the purveyor of a more electorate-friendly conservatism or a manufactured candidate to fill the vacuum for the beleaguered GOP. Bush is for real and will be underestimated by his rivals at their peril. Political ideology aside for a moment, he appears to possess those intangible qualities that make him presidential timber (as opposed to ordinary timber, like his likely opponent, Al Gore), including a contagious optimism and a refreshing Christian humility.

Now, what about his ideology? Many of us conservatives have been a bit put off by his seemingly apologetic signature slogan, "compassionate conservatism." It smacks of his father's "kinder, gentler America."

That is, many of us have inferred in the slogan an apology for an ideology we hold dear and do not believe needs excuses. But is this inference valid?

My hope is that Bush isn't trying to distance himself from mainstream conservatism at all. While his father's "kinder, gentler America" represented a slap at Reaganism, W's "compassionate conservatism" may imply no indictments of conservatism. He may just be shrewdly trying to present it in a more favorable light, seeking for conservatism a face-lift, not a body transplant.

Someone ashamed of the right wouldn't make the statement, "I know Republicans across the country are generous of heart." And incidentally, he's right. We're just not generous with other people's money.

In fact, Bush seems more anxious to distance himself from some of his father's domestic policies than from Reagan's. His proposals seem to constitute more of a repackaging, than a restructuring of conservatism. As Texas governor, he has engineered the largest tax cuts in the state's history and is also promising to make tax cuts a part of his national agenda. Bush said, "The purpose of prosperity is to make sure no one is left out and no one is left behind." This sounds like Reagan/Kemp's "a rising tide lifts all boats." And the Reagan record, by the way, proves that reductions in marginal income tax rates can and do improve the lot of all sectors of society. The rich got richer, to be sure, but so did the poor and middle classes.

Bush has announced a goal of "ushering in the responsibility era." Granted this is a generality, but it should be anathema to liberals, not conservatives.

He strongly favors school choice and has said that he would support allowing Americans to invest part of their Social Security benefits in private accounts. These are decidedly conservative (and compassionate) notions.

Bush advocates deregulation measures designed to make it easier for private and church-affiliated charities to work with state and federal governments to provide service to the needy. If for no other reason, this is delicious in its sheer potential for making liberals recoil in horror.

Despite my initial concerns, I prefer to give Bush the benefit of the doubt.

A few speeches, however, are hardly enough to enable us to assess his policy positions on a wide range of issues. Over the next few months, as he fills in the blanks, we will find out whether he indeed is a conservative at heart or if "compassionate conservatism" is a simply a disguise for establishment Republicanism.

If the former, Bush should have no trouble rallying the party's base and galloping toward the presidential prize. If the latter, his anointing may be the last straw in alienating the party's conservative base and driving it toward that dreaded third party.

JWR contributor David Limbaugh is an attorney practicing in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and a political analyst and commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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