Bush cranks up compassion of conservativism

Monday's White House concession on Medicare marks one more twist in the bargain with low-income Americans.

Throughout his presidential campaign, George W. Bush put forth "compassionate conservatism" as a major theme, a twist on his father's promise of a "kinder, gentler" Republican Party. Since Sept. 11, 2001, national security has become the central focus of this Bush White House, and compassionate conservatism seems to have vanished from the lexicon.

But President Bush hasn't become altogether tone deaf to issues of the poor, especially when they threaten to cast his administration as catering excessively to the well-off - an impression that, with another presidential election approaching, would give Democrats an easy bumper sticker.

The latest example is the flap over the increase in the child tax credit, which at the 11th hour had been eliminated for 6.5 million low-income families. When liberal budget analysts cried foul, Bush did not respond with charges of "class warfare." Instead, the issue is being addressed: The Senate last week easily extended the tax credit to those families and on Monday, Bush's spokesman essentially ordered a balky House to do the same.

Analysts, including Democrats, see multiple motives in Bush's appeal to the House, not all of them with one eye fixed to the electoral map. "Sometimes you don't do things just for the votes," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. "Helping the deserving poor is a fundamental value for the American public."

Of course, the president's actions never stray too far from politics. Even if Bush isn't going to win over a lot of low-income voters with children by putting up to 400 extra dollars in their pockets, he could sway a few. He will also help his image with the crucial middle-class independent slice of the electorate.

"He is maintaining his image as a compassionate conservative, which ... appeals to swing voters," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College with a background in Republican politics. "The narrower aspect of this is two words: West Virginia. It was the decisive state in 2000."

West Virginia, with its large low-income population, had never voted for a Republican in a close presidential election in the 20th century. It was the most surprising state that Bush won in 2000. The Democrats could have used the child tax issue against Bush in 2004 in a state he is keen to take again.

But even if the child tax credit is likely about to disappear as a political matter, a host of looming issues raise the question of how the Bush administration addresses social policies that touch low-income Americans.

The importance of Medicare reform

Next up is Medicare. Reform of the national health-insurance program for seniors has roared to center stage for Bush, as he delivers speeches on it Wednesday. For many seniors, particularly those on fixed incomes, Bush's campaign promise of a prescription-drug benefit is critical. If Bush and Congress can resolve this longstanding matter, they'll be seen as scoring a political coup.

By early this week, reports indicated that both House and Senate Republicans had agreed to a framework that would grant the same drug benefits to older Americans both inside and outside the traditional Medicare program. The White House is reportedly set to go along with this idea, even though it contradicts a central feature of the administration's proposal, which was to entice the elderly into private health plans with the promise of better prescription-drug coverage.

"Private plans are scary to a lot of older folks," says independent pollster Del Ali.

The White House's easy capitulation on this aspect reflects a Bush tendency - on full display during the tax-cut debate - not to sweat details, but rather to stick to broad principles and aim for results.

And the social agenda continues ...

Other social issues on Bush's agenda include education and reauthorization of welfare reform. On education, he's facing criticism over what many states charge is underfunding of the No Child Left Behind Act, aimed at helping kids in poorly performing schools, typically in low-income areas. He is also facing criticism over a plan that would essentially dismantle the decades-old Head Start early-childhood program, turning its funding into block grants to the states.

On welfare reform, the administration faces criticism for boosting work requirements and allegedly underfunding childcare. But this and other issues affecting lower-income Americans won't capture the headlines of the child tax credit. And making a case against stricter work requirements will be a hard sell for advocates of the poor. "People like work requirements," says Mr. Pitney. "Republicans never go wrong supporting them."

Aside from "compassionate conservatism," another catchphrase that's been sidelined by the Bush White House is the "faith-based initiative," which aimed to boost religious groups in delivering services to the poor. After initial fanfare, the initiative was scaled way back in Congress, because of reservations by religious groups in taking government money and by civil liberties groups, which objected to the blurring of church-state separation.

Still, a coalition of religious activists focusing on poverty, which had supported the faith-based initiative, isn't giving up. On Monday, coalition leaders met with the White House domestic policy staff "to express deep moral concern about consistency in the administration's support for effective policies that help alleviate poverty," according to a statement from the group Call to Renewal.

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