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Jewish World Review May 2, 2001 / 9 Iyar, 5761

Chris Matthews

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Like father, unlike son -- HE came into office trying hard not to be his father.

He embraced Christian conservatives by picking John Ashcroft, a hero to the Bible Belt, as attorney general.

He played to ardent abortion foes by banning federal family planning aid to countries or organizations that provide abortion services or counseling.

He pushed a $1.6 trillion tax cut beloved by conservatives.

He rejected the Kyoto accords on global warming, displaying his rugged independence from environmentalists.

He has yet to travel overseas, focusing on domestic and hemispheric issues.

In each instance, George W. Bush has distanced his presidency from his father's. In the late 1980s, President George Herbert Walker Bush pegged himself as a Republican moderate. His policies would be "kinder, gentler" than those of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. He would avoid the nasty budget cuts, the red-meat ideology, the hostility of blacks and the poor.

George Walker Bush hasn't played that game. He campaigned as a compassionate conservative, but from the get-go of his administration, he made clear that he's an unafraid conservative. On abortion, on taxes, on the environment, he drew a line in the sand.

The Ashcroft selection was especially emblematic. The new president knew that naming the former Missouri senator would trigger an all-out fight with the liberal opposition, that the People for the American Way, Hollywood, the Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP would all join the cotillion of rejection.

Young Bush did it anyway. He knew naming a hero of the Christian right to the attorney general's office was precisely what his father would never have done.

This father-son dynamic can be seen on other playing fields:

Dad broke a promise with a painful tax hike. Son has bet the ranch on a big tax cut.

Dad trumpeted "a New World Order" after forging a global alliance against Iraq. So far, son is the most stay-at-home president in recent history. Except for quickie trips to Mexico and Quebec, he displays no more urge for foreign travel than Jesse Helms.

George the son is not rebelling against George the father out of some Oedipal rage. He is rebelling against a father's ways because those ways didn't work. To put it bluntly, the 43rd president is intent on avoiding the mistakes that cost the 41st his job.

When the senior Bush broke that "read my lips" promise -- "No new taxes" -- he got badly burned. Having won 54 percent of the popular vote in 1988, he won just 38 percent in 1992. That kind of lesson is hard to forget.

George the father's focus on foreign policy also set a bad example. Father and son watched Dad's dazzling 91 percent approval rating after the Gulf War evaporate two Novembers later. They learned that even an impressive military triumph does not guard a commander-in-chief against an electoral trashing at home.

The two also gleaned a cultural message from the wreckage of the senior Bush's loss in 1992: Don't forget the Republican base, especially in the conservative South. That Dixie base lies far from the family's ancestral home in New England. Connecticut is now Gore-Lieberman country. So are California, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- states that the father carried in 1988 but the son lost badly last fall. To hold the presidency in 2004, W. needs to hold the South, the border states along the Mason-Dixon line and the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states. To hedge possible losses there, he needs to target Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other vote-heavy states.

To grow his culturally conservative base, young Bush offers himself as a true son of Texas, an oil wildcatter who may have gone to Yale but didn't leave his heart there. This explains why, at the university's 300-year anniversary last weekend in New Haven, Conn., the world's most powerful Yalie was conspicuously absent.

The grandest canyon between George and George W. lies in their approaches to foreign policy. Dad built his resume fighting in the South Pacific, serving as envoy to the United Nations and to China, running the CIA. Son made his name running the Texas Rangers.

Consider how the old man would have handled the stand-off over the American spy plane's emergency landing on China's Hainan Island. He would have conferred with fellow world leaders in London, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo. We'd have gotten leaked accounts of late-night meetings, of the continuous vigil in the White House situation room. It would have been the stuff of grand diplomacy, with the president as the nation's Chief Diplomat.

Of course, George W. played it just the opposite. He let others -- Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Don Rumsfeld -- share the spotlight. Foreign policy is, after all, their job. He knows, because he learned it from his father, that the key to winning re-election is to focus on matters at home. Like cutting taxes.

When that big tax cut bill gets passed and signed in the Rose Garden in August, don't expect to see any Cabinet members or staff folk sharing in the applause.

George W. Bush may be a Harvard MBA, but he learned politics in the college of his father's hard knocks. Before the big tax cut signing ceremony, the White House ballyhoo boys will be working overtime.

The hazard President Bush faces three years down the road is that the voters may not buy his act, even if it is 180 degrees from his father's. An ABC News-Washington Post poll gives Bush his highest approval rate for "international affairs." But the poll also shows trouble for the president on the tax cut issue. Only 13 percent of those surveyed said Bush's .6 trillion plan benefits middle-income taxpayers. Fifty-three percent said it mainly benefits "upper income" folks. The poll also gives the new president a far humbler rating of 47 percent on the pollster's perennial question: Does he understand the problems of people like you?

Perhaps Bush will skirt these electoral dangers with savvy strategy. Bush senior acted as if winning the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991 liberated him from any worries about winning re-election in 1992. That turned out to be a tragic delusion.

It's the rare commander-in-chief who can survive when he outruns his homefront supply line. W. is trying to avoid making the same mistake. Reports are thatmembers of his White House staff is busy planning for 2004. Rather than rest on their laurels, they are focused on the hard re-election battle ahead.

The closeness and controversy of this president's election may prove his greatest edge. The father beat his 1988 rival, Michael Dukakis, in the popular vote 54 to 46 percent. The son lost the 2000 popular vote to Al Gore. Young Bush will not rely too dangerously on a past electoral mandate because he never got one.

The shadow he may have to escape is not his father's, but his own.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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