The Washington Times

Twice in two weeks, George W. Bush has rapped the knuckles of the Republican congressional party. The first was a smack at a proposal to revise the Earned Income Tax Credit, spreading out the annual payment lower income workers now receive at tax time over 12 months instead. The Capitol Hill GOP proposed the change as a way to help meet budget targets this year. Mr. Bush denounced it as an effort “to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.” It’s dead.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush delivered his second major speech on education policy, and a speech full of specific proposals it was. But it was framed by three broad indictments. He attacked the school of libertarian-conservative thought that holds that Washington can do no good: “Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself.” He also took a shot at the conservative strain of cultural pessimism that sees “America slouching toward Gomorrah.” And he berated Republicans for speaking “a sterile language of rates and numbers, of CBO and GNP.”

The first thing to conclude from these two episodes is certainly this: Mr. Bush sees no conservative threat to himself for the GOP nomination. Therefore, he sees no need to pander to, or even rhetorically accommodate, some of these strains of conservative thinking.

This stands in rather marked contrast with what is happening on the Democratic side of the primary process, where the front-running vice president, who surely wants to present himself as a centrist as the nominee, is also acting to reassure the party’s liberal wing. The dynamic here finds a neat early encapsulation in the issue of school choice.

At no time has there ever been more ferment within the Democratic Party about the possibility of embracing school choice programs that include private and religious schools. Yet teachers unions are willing to support only public school choice, and their influence is huge. Bill Bradley, as senator, supported modest proposals in favor of choice involving private schools. He has now tacked left away from that, saying he supports public school choice only. The Gore campaign has attacked Mr. Bradley for waffling – but not because Mr. Bradley has now reached the wrong conclusion. Mr. Gore stands firm in favor of public school choice, finis. So Mr. Bradley is running away from his deviationism and Mr. Gore is trying to raise suspicions about deviationist tendencies.

There is nothing like this going on on the GOP side. Steve Forbes and others have attacked Mr. Bush directly and indirectly, but they have not forced him to turn right and bow. Therefore, Mr. Bush is free to pursue a general-election strategy designed to broaden his appeal beyond the party’s base, in an effort to lock an impression into voters’ minds. The congressional right of the party is, to Mr. Bush, what Sister Souljah was to Bill Clinton in 1992: a means for establishing that he is not beholden to a particular segment of his party base.

But what about that (presumably conservative) base? First of all, much of it has embraced Mr. Bush, pure and simple. The usual reason given for this is that it is a product merely of political calculation: Mr. Bush can win in November 2000, and you can’t say the same of anyone else.

A corollary of this conviction is that one should behave toward Mr. Bush as one would toward a man who will occupy the Oval Office in January 2001. Mr. Bush is therefore in an enviable political position, one that affords him maximum flexibility: He is feared, therefore he need not worry so much about being loved.

But I don’t think that’s the sum of what’s going on here. Look at Mr. Bush’s three points of attack. I have heard each of them hundreds of times in Washington in recent years – from conservatives. Hard-core libertarians do indeed have reason to take offense at Mr. Bush here – but most of them also agree with him on his denunciation of declinism. The cultural pessimists loathe the tendency to talk only in terms of dollars and sense, neglecting the moral dimension of policy questions. The numbers-crunchers lament a lack of realism about government.

George W. Bush seems to be on to something about the GOP’s conservative base. Its constituent components, who have long tried to paper over disagreement while insisting on obeisance to their own preoccupations, now seem to be responding favorably, in large measure, to a candidate who articulates the strains of GOP discontent.