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Jewish World Review /Feb. 11, 1999 / 25 Shevat, 5759

Tony Snow

Tony Snow What exactly does
George W. stand for?

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) AN INTERESTING SKIRMISH HAS ERUPTED in Republican ranks over the question: Should the GOP champion "compassion"?

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner in early betting on presidential nominees, set the stage for the showdown two years ago by talking about reforming welfare "in a compassionate way." That thought in time inspired the phrase, "compassionate conservative," that has become Bush's governing creed.

On election night last year, he crowed, "(A) leader who is compassionate and conservative can erase the gender gap, open the doors of the Republican Party to new faces and voices, and win without sacrificing our principles."

Bush and wife
The numbers back him. He hauled in more than 68 percent of the vote in that election, including 50 percent of Hispanics 27 percent of blacks and 65 percent of women. He became the first person ever elected to consecutive terms as governor of Texas. In recent polls, he smashes everybody in contention, including Al Gore.

In honor of Bush's success, Lamar Alexander blasted the conjunction of "compassionate" and "conservative" in a recent Wall Street Journal column. Dan Quayle and Steve Forbes also have taken pokes at the governor.

This seems to confirm Bush's observation that he inherited half of his father's friends and all of the enemies. The perceived sins of Bush pere are being visited on Bush fils, with the imputation that Bush the Younger is a willing doormat for Democrats.

One bone of contention is Bush's account of a visit last year to a juvenile jail in Marlin, Texas. As he was preparing to leave the place, which imposes tough punishment on young miscreants, he asked if there were any more questions. A 15-year-old piped up: "Yeah. What do you think of me?"

Bush recounted the episode last month in his inaugural address. "His question reveals something crucial to the future of Texas as well as this country. Because his question sprang from the deep doubt of someone who wondered whether there was any hope for him -- any room for him -- in society. He was basically asking, 'Am I worth anything?'"

George Will says the anecdote proves Bush believes government ought to give everyone the warm fuzzies. But witnesses say the governor behaved more like Dr. Laura than Leo Buscaglia. He told the kid he could become something if he took responsibility for his actions, learned the difference between right and wrong, studied, and figured out the importance of hard work.

Bush's budgets also offer insight into the meaning of "compassionate conservative." Texas ranks 49th out of 50 states in per capita government spending; per person spending has fallen since Bush took office in 1995. He proposes a 9-percent budget hike over the next two years, along with a $2.7 billion tax cut, the largest in Texas history. Two years from now, if all goes according to plan, the state will employ 140 fewer people than today -- and the welfare rolls will carry 750,000 fewer names than in 1995.

Bush aides say he has tried to recast the compassion argument in terms of results rather than expenditures. Is a government compassionate when it promises a lot and delivers little, or when it promises to take care of the basics and then gets the hell out of the way?

This sort of formula offers the only hope of uniting fractious Republican constituencies, while appealing to the 40 percent of the electorate that no longer has any partisan loyalty. By the time Bill Clinton strides out of the picture, we'll all be ready for a president we can trust without a chaperone -- but who, like Clinton, knows how to govern when people worry less about money than respect. Voters, just like the kid in the Texas jail, don't think Washington cares about them. (How else do you explain the election of Jesse the Cerebrum?)

Republicans have acute problems with this kind of challenge. They haven't denied persistent Democratic claims that they're a bunch of arrogant, hardhearted neo-Nazis -- so people think they are. Worse, they have spent the last three decades throwing away the black vote, the Hispanic vote, the women's vote and, increasingly, the suburban white vote.

Bush's rhetorical campaign aims to persuade working folks that the Party of Lincoln hasn't become the Party of Mengele.

Given the Republicans' present straits, the grousing about "compassion" seems idiotic. The congressional party has been decimated by its own indecisiveness. Capitol Hill conservatives can't even figure out the difference between right and wrong without commissioning a poll. And many of them don't understand that voters despise dreary talk of process. They want politicians to talk about real problems and real lives.

This leads us to the appropriate question for Republicans. Which is better: a compassionate conservative or a shell-shocked one?


02/08/99: Run, GOPers, run?
02/04/99: The languid sigh of waves lapping ashore
02/01/99: Verbal vortex
01/28/99: To be a ‘sell-out’ or an unelectable pol --- that is the question
01/25/99: The apogee of a trend
01/21/99:What my 3-year-old taught me
01/17/99:Don't be fooled, folks
01/14/99: Must a pol be ‘baaaad’ in order to get elected?
01/12/99: Jumpin’ Jack (Kemp)
01/08/99 : Hot air in the Windy City

©1999, Creators Syndicate