The stories in the media about how George W. Bush is racing back to the political center, or even a little left of center, are wildly exaggerated, to say the least.
With the Republican presidential nomination safely in hand, the conservative Texas governor is sensibly following the tried-and-true campaign strategy of reaching out to the independent swing voters he will need if he is to defeat Vice President Al Gore in November.
He is doing this by campaigning among traditionally Democratic minority groups like Hispanics, Asians and blacks; by championing immigrants, as Ronald Reagan did, as central to America’s dynamic economy and culture; and by offering a range of modest but politically strategic education, health care and housing proposals aimed at the lower end of the income scale.
By making these policy prescriptions the focus of his campaign in the weeks since he clinched the nomination, the media has gone into overdrive to portray Mr. Bush as rushing left. The implication is that he really isn’t as conservative as he was in the heat of the primaries.
He has come forward with a range of education proposals, but they are relatively modest in cost (compared with Mr. Gore’s), mainly focus on improving standards through local control and at their core would offer school-choice vouchers to parents whose children are in failing schools.
These vouchers could be used for public, private or parochial school, hardly an idea that anyone considers a move to the left. Conservatives have cheered this initiative, but at the same time the idea has enormous appeal to minority voters whose children are trapped in poorly run inner-city schools.
Mr. Bush has also come forward with market-oriented ideas that use tax incentives to make health care and homeownership more readily available to those who do not have it.
Instead of Mr. Gore’s government-run, nationalized approach to health care, with a price tag that could reach a quarter of a trillion dollars, Mr. Bush’s plan offers refundable tax credits for lower-income families who purchase private health insurance.
This would not only expand health-care coverage among people who cannot now afford it, it would encourage insurers to offer a wider choice of less expensive, basic health-care plans to meet new demand. The price tag for Mr. Bush’s plan: about $40 billion over five years, with a phase-out system for people who climb the income ladder.
His plan to give participants in the government’s Section 8 rent-subsidy program a chance to receive a year’s worth of advance payments to purchase their own home is an interesting example of his market-oriented approach. This would not only give those who now rent a stake in the economy, but also encourage work, thus helping low-income people move up to the middle class.
But to suggest that these programs are signs of Mr. Bush’s shift to the left is to ignore the much larger conservative reforms that make up the heart and soul of his reform agenda.
What kind of initiatives? How about Mr. Bush’s Reaganesque proposals for across-the-board cuts in the income-tax rates, doubling the $500 per child tax credit and other tax cuts, totaling $1.1 trillion over the next 10 years.
Or how about his plan to reform the Social Security system by letting workers invest part of their payroll taxes in safe, higher-yield stock and bond mutual funds, which will give them a much higher retirement income than the paltry 1 percent to 2 percent return they can expect from the present system. Mr. Bush plans to begin speaking out more aggressively about this idea in the next few weeks, his advisers tell me.
Or how about his plan to accelerate the development and deployment of an anti-missile system to protect the United States against an accidental or terrorist nuclear attack. Mr. Reagan’s visionary idea of a strategic defense shield, ridiculed by liberals as technologically impossible and unnecessary, would become a reality under Mr. Bush’s proposal.
These are three right-of-center reforms that loom very large indeed on Mr. Bush’s agenda. And he has said repeatedly that he intends to spend the bulk of his political capital on getting these proposals enacted by Congress.
The point is that not all parts of an agenda are politically or ideologically equal. Nor do a few ideas of smaller magnitude suggest a shift on the political spectrum when they are measured against much larger, more sweeping reforms.
Mr. Bush is reaching out to a broader electorate with ideas to help the less-fortunate in a time of unprecedented prosperity. He is doing it, as economist Larry Kudlow correctly says, in a way that rejects a seemingly uncaring “scowling conservatism” in favor of a gentler approach that emphasizes free-to-choose market competition and local community control.
But it is preposterous to say that these relatively modest social initiatives represent a leftward lurch not when Mr. Bush’s far more ambitious plans to partially privatize Social Security and roll back the income tax rates are aimed at dismantling the last remaining bastions of 20th-century American liberalism.Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.