- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

Bush-bashers enjoy saying President Bush is far, far to the right. But as virtually any conservative will tell you, the president has been a me-too liberal on many of the issues that matter most — spending like crazy, expanding the bureaucracy, subsidizing farmers, caving in to free-speech curbs and recklessly enlarging an entitlement program.

That list is just for starters. The question is whether he and his supporters can make a convincing case before the end of the Republican National Convention that he will rectify his errors — get right with the right — while moving boldly with particularized, innovative policies on some major problems mostly ignored in the first term.

It won’t be easy, but one thing will be easy: doing a more adult job of addressing the American people than the Democrats did in their convention. Their answer to runaway spending is spending more. Enlarge some wasteful program and you prove you care, it seems. Oh yes, they also want to blame Mr. Bush for the economic slowdown that began in the Clinton administration, they want to tax the rich more, they want you to believe George Bush is a liar and they want you fully aware their candidate John Kerry spent four months in Vietnam.

Do they get it that Social Security and Medicare are walking toward the edge of a cliff? They gave no sign they did.

What the Bush people don’t have to do, and won’t do, is confess the ways their guy went wrong. They can accentuate all the positives in the future they envision — restructuring Medicare to make it stable and moving toward enlarged liberty through less dependence on government, for instance.

Their free trade rhetoric has been excellent and some of their policies have been, too — agreeing to reduce agricultural subsidies over time and to expand free-trade agreements with South America. They can continue that kind of talk while hinting we will see no more tariffs like the one that ineffectually favored the steel industry while costing jobs in other industries.

It would be truly exciting if Mr. Bush would come out for individual retirement accounts in Social Security and for a further flattening of income taxes. The first idea would be significantly help rescue Social Security from its approaching crisis. The second idea would be economically energizing, if also an excuse for the left to scream about how awful it is for the well-to-do to keep any of their money.

Such proposals would show what an empty bucket the Kerry campaign is and just maybe convince conservatives and many others the president is willing to back his rhetoric with meaningful measures.

At one point, some reporters with seemingly good sources told us Mr. Bush would indeed announce these policy intentions at the convention. But lately they have made it sound less likely.

There is, after all, some risk, especially with the job market rebounding less quickly than the rest of the economy. (Some Bush advisers think that would make bold policies look “desperate,” we are told.) But there is also risk in conservatives thinking the main reason to vote for Mr. Bush is Mr. Kerry. People tend to stay home on Election Day if that uninspired.

Mr. Bush has certainly had accomplishments in his first term and should emphasize them. Nothing may be of more consequence to the future of American civilization than the war on terror. And despite mistakes, Mr. Bush seems to have the requisite insight, aggressiveness and decisiveness to do what is necessary to save us from calamity.

Mr. Bush’s tax reductions — although they should have been accompanied by spending reductions — were stimulative and wise. His program for accountability in the nation’s schools is on the whole a good start on improving American education.

But the Republican Convention needs to go beyond such reminders, and beyond an effort at public-relations prettiness, the chief achievement of the Democratic Convention.

The GOP should respect the American people by addressing real issues seriously and give some indication to conservative supporters the party has rediscovered fiscal responsibility, governmental restraint, the power of a market kept free and the profound importance of the Bill of Rights.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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