The Bush style: flexible conservatism

After starting out as an ideologue, Bush ends first year as a pragmatic compromiser

The pattern is a familiar one for new presidents: Aim high on issues that speak to the party faithful, and then compromise when Congress balks.

The first year of George W. Bush's tenure in the White House, by all accounts, fits that mold. His first moves as president - installing a party ideologue as attorney general, a tax cut that favors the wealthy, and renouncing the Kyoto climate protocol - clearly pegged "conservative" on the political spectrometer.

But now, as the legislative year draws to a close, the picture that emerges of America's new president is, above all, one of a pragmatist. After the initial burst of hard-core conservatism, Mr. Bush has bowed to congressional resistance and let go of favorite issues of the right - such as school vouchers and tax cuts for business. He even yielded on the Reagan-esque issue of small government, allowing airport-security workers to become part of the federal workforce.

"A flexible conservatism" is how political analyst Marshall Wittmann assesses Bush's handling of governance in his first year. "It shows a nimbleness but, at the same time, a fealty to the Republican base."

Bush, of course, showed the same proclivities during his years as Texas governor. But what does this flexibility reveal about his true political leanings? Did he just fake right at the beginning, only to spend the rest of his term driving down the center? Or is Bush really a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who gives up that ground only when he must?

Bush's true colors?

Such questions have been overshadowed by Bush's new stature as war president, but they were top of mind in Washington before Sept. 11. Certainly, Democrats, independents, and not a few moderate Republicans were surprised when he set off on a conservative course despite the circumstances of his election.

Democrats, especially, argue that this president should not be mistaken for a moderate, despite compromises he's made.

Being pragmatic is "not the same thing as being centrist," says John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

The comparison might make Bush cringe, but Mr. Clinton, too, began his first term on the ideological outskirts. His liberal agenda included allowing homosexuals to serve in the military, raising taxes, and pushing a controversial healthcare-reform plan. But as the Clinton presidency went on - and Congress fell into GOP hands - he moved toward the middle, co-opting Republican issues such as welfare reform, crime, free trade, and fiscal responsibility.

Bush, on the other hand, "hasn't put forward proposals that are really aimed at the center," says Mr. Podesta. "He's governed from an ideological bent, but he's been practical in terms of achieving his goals by moving to the center."

For example, the president gave up school vouchers and agreed to more spending than he wanted to get an education-reform bill. He wanted airport security workers to remain private-sector employees, but relented so he could get an airport-security bill. Neither did he ban all stem-cell research, as Christian conservatives had hoped he would.

Last week, as he tried to pry an economic-stimulus package from a congressional logjam, he offered to scale back the corporate alternative minimum tax - rather than eliminate it outright, as House Republicans originally wanted. And he agreed to an extension of unemployment benefits nationwide, instead of just to states hardest hit by the recession, as he first proposed. At press time yesterday, however, the White House and Senate Democrats were hung up on health-insurance provisions.

In other areas, though, Bush has shown little give.

• Over Democrats' objections, he unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, so the US can keep testing for a missile-defense shield.

• As part of the economic-stimulus deal, he still wants to accelerate tax cuts to individuals.

• He pulled off a House victory on trade authority - which gives him a free hand in negotiating trade deals - without the help of free-trade Democrats, whose concerns he pretty much ignored.

Bob Shrum, a consultant who worked for presidential candidate Al Gore, says Bush's adherence to tax-cutting stems from his need to satisfy the GOP base and to avoid the economic-stewardship mistakes that pushed his father out of the White House after one term.

"I believe that George W. Bush and [political adviser] Karl Rove think that what happened to his father was not the recession in 1992. It was the revolt on the Republican right," says Mr. Shrum. "So when it comes to issues like tax policy and budget policy, he is just not going to cross them in the House."

But some Republicans see Bush as a true moderate.

"Whatever inclinations he had to veer to the right have been tempered by the conditions where he's got to lead the whole country," says US Rep. Amo Houghton (R) of New York, a member of a group of moderate House Republicans.

Bush is "just not a hard-core conservative," agrees Larry Sabado, an election expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While he's closer to Christian conservatives than his father was, he has nonetheless appointed a gay man to head the White House AIDS office - the first appointment of an openly gay person in a Republican administration.

Concern about the GOP base

The White House seems keenly aware of the risks to Bush if he's seen as a conservative only on fiscal matters - and not social issues. Mr. Rove, Bush's political adviser, says his boss failed to mobilize about 4 million white, fundamentalist Christians in last year's election - part of the GOP base. "I hope it's temporary," he said at the American Enterprise Institute last week.

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