Bush talks like a moderate, but is he really?

New president is proving adept at selling conservative ideas with gentle rhetoric.

In his first week at the helm of a divided nation, George W. Bush is using the power of presidential rhetoric to smooth over what some consider a divisive agenda.

For instance, instead of using the unpopular "v" word - vouchers - the administration is talking about "student choice" and "empowering parents." Yet it still included vouchers as part of the president's education-reform plan Tuesday.

And while, in a rhetorical sense, Mr. Bush and his aides have tiptoed away from the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade, one of the president's very first acts was to cut off money from family-planning groups abroad that discuss abortion in their counseling.

In some ways, Bush is tearing a page right out of the playbook of his predecessor, using moderate language to make a partisan agenda more palatable. It's a shrewd political strategy, and new for a Republican president. Yet it's also leaving many in Washington - and across the country - wondering just how conservative, beneath the soothing rhetoric, Bush really is.

"There's no question that there's a gap between Bush's rhetoric and reality so far," says Elliot Mincberg, vice president for legal and education policy at People for the American Way. "It's going to take a little time before we know how he's going to come down - and whether he's really quite conservative, or not."

Already, Democrats and interest groups are complaining that the "compassion" part of the new Bush reign is evident largely in his words, while the "conservative" part is in what counts - his actions. Indeed, many steps Bush has taken so far seem to fall to the right of his language:

*Vouchers: The president this week never once used the word "vouchers," nor does it appear in his 28-page plan to reform education. Polls show that the majority of Americans oppose vouchers, which evoke an image of public schools being left in the lurch. Instead, Bush talked about "meaningful options" for students and parents when "schools do not teach and will not change."

This would amount to about $1,500 per student that could be used to help a child in a failing school attend another public school, go to a private school, or receive tutoring. It's part of holding schools accountable, Bush says, by imposing consequences.

But while Bush may not call these options "vouchers," says Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (D), that's precisely what they are.

*Abortion. In a statement read at an antiabortion rally in Washington this week, the president used vague and inclusive terms such as building a "culture of life" in America. His controversial nominee for attorney general, John Ashcroft, has maintained that neither he nor the president will seek to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that guarantees a woman's right to choose.

Yet this is hardly comforting to abortion-rights advocates who see this week's executive order on family planning groups as chipping away at the court decision. Moreover, in a Jan 18 interview, Bush told Fox reporter Brit Hume that he would not "rule out" having the Justice Department argue for a change in the law, saying: "We'd just have to see what the case is."

*Tax cuts. From the get-go, the administration knew it would be hard to sell Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut, especially in the wake of a president who had effectively argued for paying down the debt instead. Yet despite the opposition, Bush is forging ahead, using the softening economy as a rhetorical device to help justify his plan.

"I look forward to explaining to any member [of Congress] that's concerned about tax relief why I proposed it," Bush told reporters this week. "The evidence is going to become more and more clear that the economy is not as hopeful as we'd like, which I hope will strengthen my case."

Democrats on the Hill are still extremely skeptical of the size of Bush's package, though they're warming up to pieces of it.

In the face of all of this, "I think a lot of Americans were surprised by what they saw in the first few days of the Bush presidency," says Rick Hess, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. "They're wondering, 'Where's the guy I heard on Saturday?' His language in the inaugural was moderate and reasonable."

Republican pollster Linda DiVall says it should come as no surprise that the president is a conservative. His language is not an attempt to soften his position, she says, but to explain it in terms of values that the public can easily understand.

"He's being extremely smart not to get caught in the rhetoric the opposition wants," she says. Most Americans, for instance, like the idea of individual empowerment, which the Bush administration is trying to stress with its use of the word "options" instead of "vouchers."

IN MANY ways, what Bush is doing is "taking the specific, and turning it into the more neutral and general. It's quite subtle," says Anne Soukhanov, a lexicographer and editor of the Encarta World English Dictionary.

Who, for instance, can object to a "culture of life," she asks. "It can assume anything. It can assume taking care of an elderly parent, or it could be the right-to-die law in Oregon. They've taken a fighting word like 'abortion' and enclosed it in this amorphous, wonderful-sounding 'culture of life' that no one could object to."

The master of rhetorical re-packaging, of course, was Bill Clinton, who not only used words to shape public opinion, but to influence policy, says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington. It was President Clinton, for instance, who stopped Democrats from "spending" on education, jobs, and the environment, and instead had them "investing" in those areas.

The new "Bushspeak," says Mr. Rothenberg, reflects a sensitivity to the importance of language that was often missing with his Republican predecessors.

Gone is the talk about eliminating the Department of Education, for example. Rather, Bush seems to recognize that using certain hot-button words can make it impossible to have a dialogue. Moderating the tone at least gets him a hearing on his plans.

Still, there's a limit to what rhetoric can accomplish. "Unless it indicates a more general willingness to negotiate, it's kind of like trying to Scotch-tape a piece of broken china," says Rothenberg. "So we have to see whether this is just Bushspeak, or whether it indicates a broader willingness to negotiate."

Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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