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Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 1999 /12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

David Corn

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George W. Bush’s Comparative Compassion -- DO THE REPUBLICANS in Washington have a secret plan to make Texas Gov. George W. Bush appear reasonable? First the House Republicans float the idea of delaying tax credits for the working poor in order to complete spending legislation that falls within preestablished limits, and Bush ends up looking like a prince when he denounces that idea. Then the Senate Republicans, with the right-wing yahoos fully in charge, vote not just to put off acceptance of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, but to reject it outright.

When it became clear that President Clinton lacked the two-thirds vote necessary to ratify the accord, which would ban underground nuclear testing, 62 members of the Senate signed a letter maintaining it was best to shove the matter aside. They did not want the rest of the world to view the United States, the number-one nuclear power, as an atomic bully telling other nations—154 countries had signed the treaty—it doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks about nuclear proliferation. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, doing the bidding of mad-dog conservatives led by Sens. Jesse Helms and James Inhofe, insisted on an up-or-down vote on the treaty.

Given that Washington’s Western European allies (including the nuclear powers of England and France) had beseeched the Senate to ratify the treaty, that the secretary general of NATO had urged its passage, and that South Korea and Japan—which have more to fear than does the United States from North Korea’s reported attempts to go nuclear—had declared their support for ratification, the wingnuts were shoving a nuclear-tipped stick into the eyes of Washington’s strategic partners, as well as Russia, China and others awaiting U.S. acceptance of the treaty.

The anti-treaty Republicans could have avoided alienating so many friends abroad by placing the treaty into a coma. Instead, they pulled the plug and jumped up and down on the remains. Since the treaty was, in their eyes, an extension of Bill Clinton, Helms and his gang couldn’t restrain themselves. The Republicans came across as petulant, adolescent legislators seeking to settle a score with Clinton, even if that meant telling allies to beat it and nuclear wannabes around the globe to let ’er rip.

Bush has to look good in comparison. He, too, condemned the treaty, but without expressing glee at its demise. His party comrades in Washington, with their nasty ways, are helping the Governor come across as a different kind of GOPer. His campaign strategists are probably egging on the congressional Republicans to further acts of infantilism and spite, which will provide Bush more opportunities to show he is the un-Gingrich.

Bush began his separation when he branded himself a “compassionate conservative.” What did that imply about other conservatives? As the presidential campaign progresses, it’s due time to examine how Bush has served his supposed compassion. The Houston Chronicle recently reviewed his record as Texas governor to provide guidance on this front. Though the article did not mention this, we should remember that the Texas governorship is a constitutionally weak office. And the Texas legislature that Bush governs meets every other year for only 140 days.

That means that in Bush’s five years in office, he has presided over an in-session legislature for about 400 days—only about one-and-a-half years’ worth of work.

The Chronicle scorecard, cooked up by reporter Polly Ross Hughes, selected several policy areas in which to judge Bush’s compassion: health insurance, immigrants, abused children, adoption, welfare and the disabled. It found that on several fronts he’d acted to assist the less fortunate. He signed a bill that would require insurance companies to treat mental illness more like physical ailments. He pushed a measure to speed up adoptions. He added $200 million to the state budget to hire more caseworkers and support staff for agencies handling abused and neglected children. He also recently announced a state food-aid program for old and infirm immigrants—people who were cut from the foodstamps program by the welfare legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 1996.

But Bush’s compassion has its limits. He waited several years before initiating the food-aid project. The money for the child-abuse programs was significant but not sufficient. “The amount of money was a real big step,” said District Judge Scott McCown, who issued a report on child abuse deaths in Texas. “It’s not going to solve the problem. It’s not enough. It’s not going to make Texas a Cadillac agency, but at least you can keep the Chevy running.” Bush called for banning adoptions by gay or single people. When it came to his own version of welfare reform, W wanted to cut assistance to children if a parent had a felony drug conviction or refused to work.

Bush also pushed a draconian measure to impose a lifetime benefits ban on a welfare family if one of its members was convicted of a felony drug crime.

(Several church groups opposed Bush on welfare legislation, and the state legislature rejected his get-tough measures.)

Last spring, Bush tried to restrict the number of children covered under a new children’s health insurance program. The Democrats in the state House of Representatives wanted to include families that earned up to 200 percent of poverty. Bush fought for 150 percent—and lost. “The governor tried very hard to make the program serve significantly fewer children in Texas than we ultimately will serve,” said state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, a Democrat. Critics of Bush in Texas point out he devoted more energy to a bill granting a tax break to oil companies than he did to the legislation for the children’s health insurance program. Moreover, Bush initially opposed—but eventually signed—a bill that ensured children in families moving off welfare would not be automatically dropped from Medicaid.

Bush’s compassion is selective. If you’re an abused kid, you might get some attention from him. If you’re the provider in a low-income family—but not too low—don’t ask him for help for your children’s health care needs.

(And he has not displayed much compassion for asthma sufferers. Last week, The Washington Post vetted his boast that air in Texas is cleaner than when he assumed office in 1995. “There is statistical evidence,” the newspaper concluded, “that the air in Texas cities is as foul—and perhaps more so—than when Bush took power.”)

Bush is no kill-the-state Republican, which probably does irritate Steve Forbes and the who-cares-about-compassion conservatives, but he sure is not a champion of comprehensive compassion. Fortunately for him, given what occurs elsewhere in the GOP, it’s not hard to appear a saint in that party.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.

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