- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

George W. Bush may not have set out to kill his opponents with kindness, but he seems to have outmaneuvered them anyway. His first televised speech before a joint session of Congress was a masterpiece of charm, promise-keeping and rock-ribbed conservatism with a healthy dose of triangulation tossed in. Those who have spent much of the previous year underestimating him may have even more surprises ahead.

As he exhibited when choosing his Cabinet and planning his inaugural address, Mr. Bush does his homework. In the period between his election, which Florida media organizations once hostile to him now admit was on Election Day, and the submission of his budget, Mr. Bush figured out how to make his economic plan conform to American hopes and expectations.

Aware that most Americans favored reducing the national debt, he breathed new life into an old conservative tenet by establishing a link between national and personal self-sufficiency. As the federal treasury sheds debt, working class families would too, he predicted, by using tax "refunds" to pay off their credit card obligations. He was nothing short of Rooseveltian in his ability to reduce complex ideas to language most people could understand.

Reminiscent of John F. Kennedy, Mr. Bush set a timetable. Two trillion of the national debt, all "that is possible to retire," would be gone within 10 years. That would reduce debt service from 13 percent of the national budget to two percent.

Not as exciting as the space program, perhaps, but, as Mr. Bush said, such a commitment would repay more debt and at a quicker pace than at any time in the nation's history. More to the point, it would free up other funds for emergencies without forcing tax increases and enable future presidents and Congresses to fund entitlement shortfalls with new debt. The new president is already showing signs that his will be a legacy built not on quick fixes but shrewd and careful planning.

Mr. Bush's spending recommendations are sure to be adjusted as his budget works its way through Congress. But his spending priorities won't. No wonder he cast himself in the role of Goldy Locks, occupying ground just right between his too much and too little critics.

Mr. Bush's stance, while perhaps reminiscent in style to that of his new Democrat predecessor, could not have been more different in both substance and prospects for success. Bill Clinton ventured away from his party's liberal base after his party lost its legislative majorities in both houses of Congress and a majority of the nation's state houses and governorships. Mr. Bush seeks common ground with Democrats at a time when Republicans are in the ascendancy at every level of government.

Rather than seek an end to the federal government's role in education, he will use future expenditures to improve schools and make federalism work, funds Mr. Clinton used to achieve other objectives.

Schools, like students, will find that poor performance and bad behavior have consequences. State and local governments, like private businesses wherever possible, will be left freer to set their own goals and priorities.

Through his pledge to end racial profiling and his hint that he may consider fair and balanced election and campaign reforms, Mr. Bush was doing more than reaching out to minorities and other Democratic leaning constituencies. He showed he has been listening to what they have been saying even though he disagrees. Evidence that his hard work in this area is paying off could be found in the handshakes, hugs, and kisses he received on the way into the hall from some of his most vocal critics. His insertion of a phrase of Spanish in his remarks was both a first and a nice touch.

Unable to lay a hand either on Mr. Bush's proposed deficit reductions or his spending priorities, Democrats in their rebuttal, fell back to stale and obsolete attacks on his tax cuts.

How smart of them was it to rail against Ronald Reagan's record at a time when his standing with the American people rises daily? More to the point, if they consider it a mistake to have cut taxes in times of budgetary shortfalls and remain opposed to them in times of surpluses, what would it take for them to support a reduced tax burden for all who pay taxes? Surely, their constituents would like to know.

Though a cheap shot, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's evocation of Mr. Bush's treasury secretary in support of his case against tax cuts may work to the president's benefit. With Mr. Bush winning plaudits from the public by taking the high road, Democrats are in a bind. They can either move in his direction or see themselves blamed for reigniting partisan flames.

Those who forecast that Mr. Bush would fall short of the eloquence of previous presidents lacked advance access to his concluding paragraphs:

"The agenda I set before you tonight is worthy of a great nation." FDR? No, Mr. Bush.

"But let us also agree that our good will must be dedicated to great goals." Mr. Reagan? No, Mr. Bush.

"Out generation must show courage in a time of blessing, as our nation has always shown in times of crisis." JFK? No, "W."

This was no adequate speech. It was a slam dunk.

Alvin S. Felzenberg directs the Mandate for Leadership Program at the Heritage Foundation.


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