Commentary

The Clintonesque George Bush

This piece appeared in the New York Times on August 4, 1999.
Bill Clinton’s impact on the American polity was never more evident than in the major address that the Republican Presidential aspirant George W. Bush gave in Indianapolis last week. The speech was, well, Clintonesque.

A Cato Institute analysis in February of President Clinton’s January State of the Union Message counted some 95 separate proposals for Federal action, ranging from “rapid response teams” when local businesses close to demands that local school districts adopt Federal “discipline policies.” Governor Bush’s speech was by no means as sweeping as that of our undisciplined President, but in at least one important aspect it was remarkably similar: both speeches were utterly casual in their assumption that virtually any problem confronting the American people is an excuse for action by the Federal Government.

Thus, Governor Bush proposed in his Indianapolis speech Federal efforts to deal with the children of prisoners, after-school activities and “maternity group homes,” while calling for major Government financing of local religious and charitable organizations.

The Framers of the Constitution, of course, had quite another vision in mind. Governance, in their scheme of things, was to take place at the state and local levels. The national Government was “delegated” certain limited powers, primary among them national defense and, with the passage of the Civil War amendments, the protection of our civil liberties. So that there would be no confusion, the 10th Amendment made clear that powers not granted to the Federal Government were to be reserved to the states or to the people.

Financing maternity group homes was not part of the scheme.

Governor Bush’s speech also included elements that could have come straight out of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the so-called New Democrats. The bible of the New Democrats is “Reinventing Government,” written by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. The authors state that they “believe deeply in government,” while admitting that it can be a bit ham-fisted in dealing with social problems. So, they set out to design a government that works more like the private sector, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off.

Which they don’t. But the book is an intelligent effort to do so. It’s full of market-oriented jargon, “seed money” projects, incentive programs, plans to persuade “various interest groups to embrace common goals and strategies.” Underneath it all, however, is a desire to define those “common goals” at the Federal level.

“Those who steer the boat have far more power than those who row it,” they write. “Governments that focus on steering actively shape their communities, state, and nations. They make more policy decisions. They put more social and economic institutions into motion. Some even do more regulating. Rather than hiring more public employees, they make sure other institutions are delivering services and meeting communities’ needs.”

All of which is pretty much what George W. Bush spoke about in Indianapolis. In calling for Federal financing of local social programs, the Texas Governor sounded the New Democrat theme: “It will be government that directs help to the inspired and the effective.” His call for a “compassion capital fund” that would “identify good ideas transforming neighborhoods and lives and provide seed money to support them” could easily have been written by David Osborne.

In fact, Mr. Bush’s speechwriter appears to have been moonlighting for Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a June speech in Paris, Mrs. Clinton took direct aim at the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the Republican Party, complaining that “there are those … who insist on assaulting government, who claim that if we would only abolish or severely weaken it that everyone’s freedom and prosperity would blossom.” This, she said, “is a very mistaken notion.”

George W. Bush agreed in his talk, ridiculing those with a “destructive mindset: the idea that if government would only get out of the way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose than ‘Leave us alone.’ ”

Never mind the Clintonesque dissembling in both statements: Those Americans who desire far less government don’t want to “abolish” it, nor do they claim that “all our problems would be solved.” The significance here is that both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush are taking aim at the same people for the same reasons. And the similarities don’t end there.

Hillary: “We need strong and efficient governments … that are able to empower citizens.” George W.: “Government must be carefully limited — but strong and active and respected within those bounds.”

The latter statement is defining for the Eastern Establishment of the Republican Party. In the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, Bob Dole and Governor Bush’s father, George Bush, these Republicans pay lip service to “limited government” to keep the conservative-libertarian majority of the party on board, but then govern with “strong and active” intervention.

One wonders, for instance, just what “bounds” Governor Bush has in mind, given the role he sees for the Federal Government in supporting maternity group homes.

The straightforward attack by Governor Bush on the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the Republican Party in his Indianapolis speech is, in fact, an attack on Steve Forbes and Dan Quayle, who best represent that tradition among the Republican Presidential hopefuls. Given the absurd campaign contribution limits, the handiwork of Common Cause, the attack is primarily focused on Mr. Forbes, who is the only candidate with the resources to seriously challenge Mr. Bush.

The task for Mr. Forbes, who carries the Reagan mantle, is to expose George W. as, if not a New Democrat, an Eastern Establishment Republican in good standing. That won’t be easy, as the Governor has surrounded himself with conservatives, a few former Reagan advisers and even a libertarian or two, perhaps to limit scrutiny of his actual agenda.

But that agenda was on display in Indianapolis last week, and it ought to give pause to those limited-government Republicans who truly want to put an end to Bill Clinton’s political legacy.

Edward H. Crane is the president of the Cato Institute.