Bush the closet moderate

Several observers of the presidency now have weighed in with their conclusion that George W. Bush is a conservative of the Ronald Reagan stripe - and that all this talk during the campaign of Mr. Bush being a compassionate conservative and thereby a moderate Republican simply isn't true. I beg to differ.

I think that philosophically George W. is his father's son. And remember how stridently conservatives complained over what they called the "liberal" Vice President Bush influencing President Reagan too much? "Let Reagan be Reagan," they implored.

I think that George W., like his father, is a descendant philosophically of President Eisenhower, who in one of my interviews with him after he retired to Gettysburg responded to my question about his political beliefs: "I'm a conservative on the economy and generally a progressive."

Staunch conservatives didn't trust Ike. That's why conservative Ohio Sen. Robert Taft came within a hair of beating the general in their fierce battle for the presidential nomination in 1952.

Conservatives didn't like Eisenhower's acceptance of the social programs put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The chief early mark of the GOP "moderate" became this acceptance of what the conservatives decried as socialism.

Oh, I know how George W. has insisted that he has charted his own philosophical course - and how his parents have often said that their son was going his own way politically. Indeed, George W. proclaims his conservative leanings over and over again and particularly in Texas. I believe him.

But I also believe he is a conservative with strong moderate leanings like his father - no matter what he says.

It's true that immediately on taking office George W. sought to erase some of President Clinton's social initiatives, particularly his environmental decrees. That response has been widely interpreted by observers as the sign of what our new president really is - a deep-down conservative.

And when the president suddenly changed course and accepted some of Mr. Clinton's new environmental requirements and regulations, the critics said this was simply a conservative who was buckling to widespread public opposition he had stirred up.

I see it differently.

I see a moderate president (call him a "closet moderate," if you will) who owed so much to the support of conservatives that he felt he had to move to block those last-minute Clinton initiatives.

And now that he has repositioned himself on these requirements, he's moving to a middle ground, I think that Bush is just about where he wants to be - and where he thinks the nation should be.

So Bush is hurt among both conservatives and liberals. That's the plight of a moderate when he lands on middle ground.

I think of Eisenhower as the younger Bush pushes for a Western Hemisphere free-trade zone. Ike was a pioneer president in advocating free trade at a time when protectionism was still a central part of the old-time conservative philosophy.

It was on a "Meet the Press" program back in 1979 that the older Bush, making his first run for president, responded to my question about his "vision" by saying that he was a "compassionate conservative."

And then he added this to a follow-up question: "Sometimes you have a hard choice on unemployment versus breaking the back of inflation. Mine would be to be compassionate, work to see that those that are thrown out of work are given support...."

After I cited that Bush quote in a column during the past presidential campaign, the senior Bush dropped me a note, confirming that he had, indeed, said this and that this was where his son had "picked it up."

I happen to believe that George W. "picked it up" because it is his basic philosophy. I know that I'm pretty much standing alone in this view at the moment. But this administration has a long way to go.

P.S. Outspoken Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a guest at a recent Monitor breakfast, scorned the idea that George W. was anything except a hard-line conservative. But what else do you expect the highly partisan Mr. McAuliffe to say?

He did have some news: He said he had just had dinner with Al Gore, and that Mr. Gore definitely would be running for president again.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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