- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

George W. Bush left last week's Republican National Convention with his party united, renewed and armed with a right-of-center agenda aimed at a larger and more racially diverse electorate.

The Bush campaign message is that he is "a different kind of Republican," and that the GOP is now a different kind of party than it was in the 1990s. And it is true that to the degree that Mr. Bush is appealing more aggressively to blacks, Hispanics and other traditionally Democratic voting blocs, he is driving the GOP into new political territory. But there were also familiar elements of Ronald Reagan's Republican Party visible at the convention in the themes and outreach strategies that Mr. Bush is pursuing in his presidential campaign.

Mr. Reagan, after all, was the first Republican to campaign in the heavily black, South Bronx neighborhood with his call for enterprise zones to bring economic renewal to depressed inner cities. He campaigned heavily as well for Hispanic votes, and holds the record among Republican presidential candidates for getting the largest share of their vote.

Mr. Bush is taking Reagan's initiative a huge leap forward by fighting harder for minority voters than any Republican presidential nominee has ever fought. The news media and pundits ridiculed the number of blacks and Hispanics who were on the convention stage, compared with the overwhelmingly white delegations on the floor. But Mr. Bush is making his pitch to minorities on some very appealing grounds: educational choice, lower taxes and opening up access to the middle class. All these ideas began and were promoted in the Reagan era and its aftermath.

Mr. Bush has also restored two other issues to the forefront of the GOP's agenda: immigrants and free trade. Mr. Reagan championed them, but they lost their luster in the 1990s when he left the stage.

Like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush sees ambitious, hard-working immigrants as a key element of the ever-growing U.S. economy and a pivotal, expanding voting bloc for the GOP. In his speeches, Mr. Reagan treated immigrants as heroes and campaigned for their votes. When he left the presidency, the GOP seemed to turn against immigration and lost ground because of it (especially in California).

Mr. Bush has restored the party's support for immigrants. If he wins, they will likely be a major factor in his success.

Similarly, the GOP became divided over trade in the post-Reagan 1990s, falling prey to demagogues who said it would undermine our economy, cost jobs and weaken American prosperity. But as global trade mushroomed in the 1980s and '90s, the economy has grown stronger and good jobs are more plentiful. Mr. Bush, who wants to expand NAFTA into Latin America, is an unabashed free-trader, and protectionism is in retreat.

Throughout the four-day convention, the talking heads in the news media couldn't quite figure out which political direction Mr. Bush was moving in. His flat-out political appeal to minorities and a handful of domestic spending proposals was a sign that he was shifting to the center, they said.

But others said that by picking staunch conservative Richard B. Cheney as his running mate, he showed that he was embracing the far right. Which is it?

Though Mr. Bush is reaching out with specific appeals to independents and Democrats, the meat-and-potatoes agenda he is selling is hardly a move to the left.

Overhauling Social Security for the first time since the New Deal to let workers put part of their payroll taxes into stocks and bonds which would begin the privatization of the Holy Grail of liberalism is not a leftist proposal. Nor are across-the-board tax cuts a la Ronald Reagan, or accelerating and deploying Mr. Reagan's dream of a missile-defense system and rebuilding our military might.

If these proposals represent a shift to the center, then count me in.

The media made much of retired Gen. Colin Powell's defense of affirmative-action programs to help disadvantaged minorities, a position he has stated many times and on which there is disagreement within the GOP. But the media mouths said nothing about his ringing endorsement of Mr. Bush's far-reaching school-choice voucher plan, which would help break the public-school monopoly and free millions of minority children trapped in failed inner-city schools.

This key education-reform proposal is bitterly opposed by the National Education Association. But it is gaining converts among blacks and Hispanics, who have suffered the most under the NEA's status-quo policies. Vouchers have been at the forefront of conservative reforms for the past two decades, and Mr. Bush is embracing them.

The story of the Republican convention, for the legions of reporters who covered it, was been how much Mr. Bush and his running mate would attack the scandal-ridden Clinton-Gore administration, which has stained the presidency with eight years of investigations, indictments and an impeachment.

But the real story of the Philadelphia convention is about how George W. Bush led the GOP back to the basic ideological tenets of the Reagan era after years in the wilderness: lower tax rates, freer choice in education and health care, expanding free trade around the world, and broadening the base of the party to include everyone who joins this cause. Ronald Reagan would be proud of the Bush agenda, because it is the essence of the inclusive, conservative politics he championed throughout the 1980s. Last week, the Republican Party came home to the Gipper's ever-optimistic "shining city on the hill."

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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