Bush's no moderate - he's to the right of Reagan

During his campaign last year, George W. Bush told us that he was a "compassionate conservative" and a "different kind of Republican."

As one who has fought for decades to build a new center in American politics, I was hopeful that the new president would push the GOP to the political center, just as President Clinton and the New Democrats did for their party during the last decade. I applauded his Clinton-like call, in his first speech to Congress, for a government that is active, but limited.

It's still early, but as the Bush administration completes its first 100 days, a starkly different picture is emerging. He is governing as a conventional conservative whose ideology is to the right of recent Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan. His rhetoric may be compassionate, but his actions are conservative.

Changing a political party requires more than just rhetoric. It requires challenging party orthodoxy and taking on entrenched interests. I know something about that. As founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, I stood with President Clinton when we took on our party's left on issues such as federal spending, trade, welfare reform, crime, and the role of government.

When we prevailed, our party was very different, standing for economic growth and opportunity, not just redistribution; for fiscal responsibility, not "tax and spend"; for work, not welfare; for preventing crime and punishing criminals, not explaining away their behavior; for empowering, not bureaucratic, government; and for fostering a new sense of community and an ethic of mutual responsibility by asking citizens to give something back to their country.

But where has President Bush challenged his party's orthodoxies?

Not on taxes. His plan toes the conservative line of the past quarter century: Cut taxes, mostly for the wealthy, to reduce the size of government by starving it of revenues.

Not on Social Security or Medicare. Dealing with the impending baby boom retirement will require both greater fiscal discipline and modernizing Social Security and Medicare. Bush talks about partial privatization, a course we need to consider. But without setting aside the transition funding needed to reform the systems, it's bad policy - and privatizing Social Security has long been Republican orthodoxy.

Not on abortion. He reversed Clinton initiatives to encourage family planning.

Not on crime. He's phasing out the Clinton initiative to put 100,000 more police officers on community streets.

Not on gun safety. Despite recent school shootings, he has conspicuously avoided the issue.

Not on the environment. He flip-flopped on his campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and pulled the US out of discussions to fix the Kyoto protocol. He first reversed rules to reduce arsenic in our drinking water, then, under pressure, seemed to change his mind. And, though he later rescinded them, his Agriculture Department even issued regulations reducing the safeguards against salmonella in meat products.

Not on worker safety. He pushed lawmakers to throw out ergonomic regulations that would protect mostly lower-income workers from job injuries, though every Labor secretary since Elizabeth Dole has supported such legislation.

Not on foreign policy. His decisions to pull back from efforts to bring unity to Korea and peace to the Middle East raise the specter of renewed Republican isolationism.

Not on campaign finance. He's trying to stop the McCainFeingold bill.

Not on judicial appointments. He has dispensed with the practice of having the American Bar Association vet judicial nominees. No Republican president - not Eisenhower, not Nixon, not Ford, not Reagan, not George H. W. Bush - has done that.

Not even on education. He's been hailed for accepting a federal role in helping schools - and reports of negotiations with New Democrats are promising - but the Bush position opposes real national standards, short-changes necessary investment in schools, and embraces the old conservative standby on vouchers.

The bottom line is this: When the talking stops and the walking starts, George Bush is no compassionate conservative. He's no different kind of Republican. He hasn't moved his party to the center. He's pushed it even further to the right.

The president may not realize it yet, but he does that at his political peril. Voters who thought they were buying a compassionate conservative may soon become disenchanted with a president who governs as a conventional conservative.

Here, too, the new president might learn from President Clinton. When voters perceived Clinton as moving left in his first two years, after running as a New Democrat, they exacted an enormous price on his party in the 1994 midterm election. So conservatives and congressional Republicans may delight today when the president veers to the right. But their mood may sour dramatically next year if the voters hold him to his promise of being a different kind of Republican.

Al From is founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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