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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Faith of his father

George W. Bush gets specific with a plan to fund private charities. Did someone say 'points of light?'

By James Carney/Austin

July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:25 p.m. EDT (2025 GMT)

TIME magazine

George W. Bush was falling into a rut. For all his early success--a gaudy lead in the polls, a $37 million-and-rising war chest--the Texas Governor, after a month of delivering the same airy, slogan-rich speech, was sounding stale and tired by mid-July. His Republican opponents were calling him the all-money-and-no-message candidate, and the label was beginning to stick. (Sensitive to the charge, Bush half seriously asked his finance chairman if there was any way "to slow down" the flow of contributions.) And to make matters worse, Bill Clinton was trying to provoke Bush from the presidential podium, archly recalling how in 1991 he began his presidential bid by telling voters exactly what policies he would pursue. Pressed by a reporter in Ames, Iowa, to say when he planned to start talking substance, Bush pursed his lips and suggested he wouldn't be rushed: "There's a pace to a campaign that's important to maintain."

The pace suddenly got quicker last week. At a church in Indianapolis, Ind., Bush laid out a detailed list of proposals--complete with a promise of $8 billion in new federal spending--aimed at expanding the role of charities, churches and community groups in helping the poor. A Republican's pledging to increase federal spending for the poor is novel in its own right. But the speech was less remarkable for its topic--supporting faith-based institutions is in vogue with candidates from both parties--than for how Bush used it to neutralize his critics on both the left and the right. By pursuing a liberal end with conservative means, Bush placed himself and his guiding philosophy of "compassionate conservatism" smack in the center of the political spectrum. Sighed a top Democratic operative in Washington: "I hate to admit it, but it was a damned good speech."

Even as he appealed to Christian conservatives by extolling the "transforming power of faith" to change lives, Bush chided his own party for hardheartedness. "We must apply our conservative and free-market ideas to the job of helping real human beings," he said, "because any ideology, no matter how right in theory, is sterile and empty without that goal." And while he labeled his chief Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, an out-of-touch "Washington politician," Bush also lectured conservatives that "government is not the enemy of the American people." Even Bush's father was an indirect target. "It is not enough [just] to call for volunteerism," said W., suggesting that simply praising charities as President Bush once did with his "points of light," without offering them government assistance won't cut it.

Yet much of the younger Bush's rhetoric about compassionate conservatism is taken directly from his father's. In 1988, more than a decade before W. made "prosperity with a purpose" a presidential campaign slogan, then Vice President Bush was saying that "prosperity with a purpose means giving back to the country that has given you so much." The difference is that the elder Bush's compassion for the less fortunate came across as noblesse oblige, while the younger Bush has made it the emotional core of his campaign.

Bush and his staff love to boast about how, in contrast to the current Administration, they don't rely on polls to set policy. But TIME has learned that while Bush's campaign hasn't done any polling, earlier this year it did play videotapes of the Governor's explaining his compassionate conservative philosophy in front of several focus groups, testing the participants' reactions to what he said. His proposals may succeed in capturing the center of the electorate, but whether they can succeed as policy is another matter. Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, warns of "a tendency among conservatives to overstate the capacity of churches and civic actors to deal with social problems." Robert Rector, a welfare-policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, is concerned that Bush's plan would funnel tax dollars to left-leaning groups with effective lobbyists. "Why would any Republican come up with a proposal that preferentially gives money to these groups?" Rector asks.

Such fears haven't spread within the G.O.P. Many rank-and-file Republicans are like Tom Kapanka, 43, a school administrator from Waterloo, Iowa, who prefers social conservatives such as Gary Bauer but says he's voting for Bush anyway. "The candidates I'm drawn to are good at speaking to America," said Kapanka as he waited for Bush to arrive at a rally in Waterloo. "But I decided we need someone who can speak for America." That could be good news for Bush. After all, telling voters what you believe is part of running for President. But getting those who don't agree to vote for you anyway is part of winning.


Cover Date: August 1, 1999

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