Bush Compassion in 2003

As George W. Bush nears the midpoint of his term, he has proven himself to be a wartime president, a tax-cutting president, and an education president.

But America has yet to see most of the programs he promised during the 2000 campaign in an agenda he called compassionate conservatism.

Of six items on that agenda - a prescription-drug benefit for seniors, help toward home ownership, healthcare tax credits; private retirement accounts, support for religious charities, and education accountability - only the "Leave No Child Behind" education act of 2001 has crossed the legislative finish line.

Three forces have combined to thwart Mr. Bush's efforts: gridlock with Democrats in Congress, the war on terrorism, and in some cases, not enough White House political umph (or any umph at all) to pass a bill or find a compromise on Capitol Hill.

The war on terrorism, indeed, a possible war with Iraq, could once again swamp his social agenda. The White House should try mightily to prevent that from happening.

Fortunately, conditions for progress look better in 2003. Not only does the president have an all-GOP Congress to work with, but the new Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, is close to Bush. The president himself, meanwhile, seems committed to trying again on a prescription-drug benefit and making healthcare accessible to more Americans (in the form of tax credits for insurance premiums).

Back when Bush was running for the White House as a compassionate conservative, he often talked about his philosophy of market principles combined with mercy for the less fortunate. A prime example was his call to reform welfare by insisting on tighter requirements for work. At the same time, he wanted to reach more of the poor and disadvantaged by providing federal assistance through charities and religious groups.

With the budget surpluses of his first year now gone, Bush must decide whether the nation can afford every aspect of his agenda. He's already thrown his support behind an extension of unemployment benefits to nearly 800,000 jobless people. And many cash-strapped states want Congress to pay for underfunded, federally mandated programs.

Finding fiscally prudent or market-based solutions to national social problems won't be easy during wartime or a sluggish economy. But come 2004, when he's likely to run for office again, Bush must be held accountable for making good on most, if not all, of his campaign promises.

With unemployment running at 6 percent and 39 states registering an increase in welfare cases, this year looks to be an appropriate time for the president to redouble his compassion efforts.

Defining a middle ground between the left and right on federal social programs could be a great legacy for him, and help dispel much of the rancor in Washington.

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