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The next triangulator

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

October 11, 1999
Web posted at: 12:01 p.m. EDT (1601 GMT)

Last week, when George W. Bush gave his own party a carefully placed thwack--saying the G.O.P. is too often dour, obsessed with wealth and indifferent to the "human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence"--he managed to do a few tricky things at once. He got credit for being warm and caring and optimistic while distancing himself not just from congressional Republicans but from Washington itself--all by trumpeting the success he and other G.O.P. Governors have had reducing crime, welfare dependency and the like. "Something unexpected happened on the way to cultural decline," he said. "Problems that seemed inevitable proved to be reversible."

Among those marveling at the Texas Governor's deft move was the reigning master of deft moves, Bill Clinton. Inside the White House on Wednesday, sources told TIME, the President offered a critique of Bush's speech that included moments of grudging admiration and startled recognition. "He saw himself in Bush," says an adviser. "A whole lot of himself." On Capitol Hill, where House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other G.O.P. bosses were enraged by Bush's words, aides to minority leader Dick Gephardt told Hastert's people, "Get used to it. We've been putting up with this for seven years." Bush called Hastert on Thursday to make nice, sources told TIME; earlier, Bush strategist Karl Rove called Representative Tom Davis, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, to offer Bush's fund-raising help.

As pundits debated whether Bush was trying to move his party to the center or just slapping a happy face on familiar policies, they hauled out the Dick Morris term triangulation, coined by the former Clinton adviser in 1995 to describe the President's strategy of positioning himself above and between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. But Clinton sees Bush's moves as having less in common with triangulation than with Clinton's strategies as a candidate in 1991 and 1992, when he took on the left wing of his party, challenging its hidebound policies on such issues as welfare, taxes and the death penalty. Clinton's "Sister Souljah moment"--rebuking the race-baiting rapper at a meeting of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition--is merely the most famous of these confrontations, all designed to show that Clinton would govern as a new kind of Democrat. And Bush's words are designed to show that he would govern as a new kind of Republican--one who uses conservative principles to help the poor as well as the rich.

"Clinton had to be credible on traditional Republican issues like crime and taxes in order to be taken seriously on the compassion issues he cared most about," says Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Bush, says From, has the same problem in reverse: "He has to be credible on compassion issues in order to have the rest of his agenda taken seriously."

But Clinton and his allies note a difference between what he did in 1992 and what Bush is doing now. As the President sees it, he actually did the hard work of moving his party--debating the policies, fighting the fights--and so far, he thinks, there's little evidence that Bush is trying to transform his party in similar fashion. "When will George W. stand up and and disagree with the NRA or the evangelicals?" asks former Clinton aide Paul Begala, who wrote the Sister Souljah speech. Says another adviser: "Bush is just doing a tactical push-off. Is he really going to take on these guys in the House, or just make a speech and then run from it?"

On one policy, at least, Bush really is taking on his right wing. Lost amid the noise last week was the substance of his education address, delivered to the Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank. Bush outlined a policy that is based on conservative principles but not hatred of government. His plan would push control and accountability to the state level--with fewer federal strings attached--but use a back-door form of national standards to measure success: he would require every state to develop its own annual achievement tests. States that show improvement would receive more federal money; states that don't would see dollars diverted to a fund for charter schools.

The plan replicates on the national level a system that has been working in Texas, where Bush pushed control to the localities but insisted on statewide tests to measure progress. The scores have been improving ever since, though Bush fought pitched battles with religious conservatives who opposed the tests and other parts of his program. He was able to neutralize them because he was so popular in the middle that he didn't need the fringe. Now he's trying to exploit the same dynamic nationally. "It's a different league but the same style of baseball," says Bill Miller, an Austin consultant who has worked with both Republicans and Democrats. And Bush's rivals are now reacting the same way his Texas opponents did--balking at standards even if they're administered by the states. "It's one step away from a federal mandate that says, 'You'll have to use our test,'" says Steve Forbes' campaign manager, Bill Dal Col.

This is an important debate within the party--Bush in favor of activist government, hard-liners against--and it's what Bush was getting at last week when he said that "too often my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself." But in the hubbub after his speech, his campaign ran away from its implications. As conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to Gary Bauer screamed that Bush was declaring war on his base, his campaign launched two contradictory bits of spin. One set of advisers said Bush meant to send a message to his party. "What we're saying is that conservative principles are right," a top adviser told TIME, "but what you derive from those principles, the focus you take, has been wrong." Another set began claiming that Bush's remarks had been off the cuff and misconstrued, that he had been talking about unfair "perceptions" of the G.O.P.

This second line of spin was not courageous--or true. The speech had been in the works for a month, and principled slaps at the G.O.P. had been in the earliest versions. Indeed, Bush had been saying similar things in milder terms since summer, calculating that he can chide conservatives and woo moderates without losing his right flank. But he knows the primaries aren't over. The only rival gaining on him is Senator John McCain: in New Hampshire he has picked up 13 points in a month, standing at 23% to Bush's 43% in one poll. But McCain is even more critical of the G.O.P. than Bush, so Bush's words could conceivably help him fend off McCain. Forbes will label Bush a closet tax-and-spend liberal in a massive TV assault set to begin late this year, and Bush is preparing for the attack. Sources told TIME that Bush held focus groups last week in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, showing gauzy biographical ads as well as mock attacks anticipating what Forbes will throw at him: that Bush is not a real conservative.

Beyond the posturing rivals and professional loudmouths, many conservative leaders secretly are not that concerned about what Bush said last week. They know he has a history of offering moderate rhetoric, then coming down solidly in their camp. Two weeks ago, he opposed a G.O.P. plan to delay tax-credit payments to low-income workers, saying his party's leaders shouldn't "balance their budget on the backs of the poor." But he supported the party's $800 billion tax-cut plan, which would require deep cuts in worthy programs aimed at the same people.

The pattern isn't new. Last year the Texas G.O.P. refused to let the Log Cabin Republicans, a national organization of gay G.O.P. members, set up a booth at the party's convention. Bush spoke out on behalf of the Log Cabin, saying it "should be treated with dignity and respect." But when the Texas legislature considered a hate-crime bill with special penalties for crimes against gays, he opposed it. He promised to veto any bill repealing the state's homosexual-sodomy law, and he supported legislation that would ban gay adoption and even take children away from gay couples who had already adopted them. Even Forbes couldn't get to the right of that.

Now Bush is under the hot lights. He can either return to his old pattern--kind words and cold policies--or offer more of the innovative conservatism his new education proposal represents. Education has always been his best issue, but he needs to build on it. And the old tricks may not win over the moderates he's after.

--With reporting by James Carney and John F. Dickerson/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 18, 1999

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