George W.'s Compassion

Article excerpt

Behind the grove of pecan trees and the iron gates, behind the whitewashed brick walls that surround the Texas governor's residence, a latticework of scaffolding, gangplanks, and ladders has risen around the fluted columns of the southern-style mansion. But inside there is a different sort of construction project taking shape: the George W. Project. To date it has cost more than $75 million (contributed in support of George W. Bush's two gubernatorial races and his quest for the presidency). And it's been test-run and honed to perfection by its two main engineers. First, there's George H.W. Bush, father of the candidate, whose pedigree has encouraged the Republican Party establishment to anoint his son its standard-bearer for 2000; and then there's Karl Rove, a savvy Texas political consultant and former Philip Morris intelligence operative who believes George W. is the one-size-fits-all presidential candidate for the millennium.

Bush's critics like to say that he is all style and no substance, that he's determined to appeal not only to every faction of the fractured GOP, but to independents and moderate Democrats as well. The irony is that his supporters don't seem to see things all that differently. To them, issues are less important than whether Bush has the combination of name recognition, personality, and fundraising ability to make him a winner. And enough establishment blue-bloods and Big Business types have already gotten on board that Bush's fundraising team has been able to assemble a formidable array of financial backers. "Bush," says one Democratic political consultant from Austin, "is coming to symbolize the Restoration: he's well-born, Christian, white--and they all say, `He's one of us.'"

COMPASSIONATE BREW

How different, in substance, is Bush's "compassionate conservatism" from the mean-spirited, curdled conservatism espoused by the Republican revolutionaries of 1994?

Thus far, Bush's compassionate conservative political brew has enabled him to finesse most of the abrasive wedge issues favored by social conservatives such as immigration, race, and abortion while, at the same time, downplaying, ignoring, or outright contradicting the IRS-abolishing, flat tax--propounding faction of the GOP's economic right. He's jettisoned the red-meat issues which repel swing voters and fill Republican fire-eaters with glee; and in so doing he has positioned himself as the champion of country club Republicanism and of its coterie of big-dollar campaign contributors, who support his agenda of cutting taxes, slashing welfare, backing tort reform, deregulating industry, and privatizing just about everything.

That is the sort of agenda Bush has pursued as governor of Texas. "In many ways," he told the Los Angeles Times last May, "public policy ought to bypass all government and focus on individuals." He has sought draconian changes in the state's welfare system, proposed a series of regressive tax cuts centered on reduced property taxes, and suggested that Texas privatize its education system through a controversial system of taxpayer-funded vouchers. He has also been engaged in a bitter and long-running battle with the Texas AFL-CIO from virtually his first months in office, over a wide range of issues; and he has angered environmentalists by caving in to the state's oil and chemical industry by supporting voluntary, rather than mandatory, emission standards for polluters. He has refused to ameliorate Texas's nation-leading penchant for executing wrongdoers and, according to civil rights activists in Austin, refused entreaties to reform the state's broken parole and pardon system. All of this, while stressing the importance of religion-oriented, "faith-based" alternatives to social service programs.

Ironically, one of the most telling aspects of Bush's tenure as governor is that, for all his talk of compassion, he has been most consistently stingy on policies affecting children. …