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 JanuaryState of the Union Message counted some 95 separate proposalsfor Federal action, ranging from "rapid response teams" when localbusinesses close to demands that local school districts adoptFederal "discipline policies." Governor Bush's speech was by nomeans as sweeping as that of our undisciplined President, but in atleast one important aspect it was remarkably similar: both speecheswere utterly casual in their assumption that virtually any problemconfronting the American people is an excuse for action by theFederal Government.

Thus, Governor Bush proposed in his Indianapolis speech Federalefforts to deal with the children of prisoners, after-school activitiesand "maternity group homes," while calling for major Governmentfinancing of local religious and charitable organizations.

The Framers of the Constitution, of course, had quite another visionin mind. Governance, in their scheme of things, was to take place atthe 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 ourcivil liberties. So that there would be no confusion, the 10thAmendment made clear that powers not granted to the FederalGovernment 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 havecome straight out of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank ofthe so-called New Democrats. The bible of the New Democrats is"Reinventing Government," written by David Osborne and TedGaebler. The authors state that they "believe deeply in government,"while admitting that it can be a bit ham-fisted in dealing with socialproblems. So, they set out to design a government that works morelike 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 fullof market-oriented jargon, "seed money" projects, incentiveprograms, plans to persuade "various interest groups to embracecommon goals and strategies." Underneath it all, however, is adesire to define those "common goals" at the Federal level.

"Those who steer the boat have far more power than those who rowit," they write. "Governments that focus on steering actively shapetheir communities, state, and nations. They make more policydecisions. They put more social and economic institutions intomotion. Some even do more regulating. Rather than hiring morepublic employees, they make sure other institutions are deliveringservices and meeting communities' needs."

All of which is pretty much what George W. Bush spoke about inIndianapolis. In calling for Federal financing of local social programs,the Texas Governor sounded the New Democrat theme: "It will begovernment that directs help to the inspired and the effective." Hiscall for a "compassion capital fund" that would "identify good ideastransforming neighborhoods and lives and provide seed money tosupport them" could easily have been written by David Osborne.

In fact, Mr. Bush's speechwriter appears to have been moonlightingfor Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a June speech in Paris, Mrs. Clintontook direct aim at the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the RepublicanParty, complaining that "there are those . . . who insist on assaultinggovernment, who claim that if we would only abolish or severelyweaken 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 outof the way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with nohigher goal, no nobler purpose than 'Leave us alone.' "

Never mind the Clintonesque dissembling in both statements: ThoseAmericans who desire far less government don't want to "abolish" it,nor do they claim that "all our problems would be solved." Thesignificance here is that both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bushare taking aim at the same people for the same reasons. And thesimilarities don't end there.

Hillary: "We need strong and efficient governments . . . that are ableto empower citizens." George W.: "Government must be carefullylimited -- but strong and active and respected within those bounds."

The latter statement is defining for the Eastern Establishment of theRepublican Party. In the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller, GeorgeRomney, Bob Dole and Governor Bush's father, George Bush,these Republicans pay lip service to "limited government" to keepthe conservative-libertarian majority of the party on board, but thengovern with "strong and active" intervention.

One wonders, for instance, just what "bounds" Governor Bush hasin mind, given the role he sees for the Federal Government insupporting maternity group homes.

The straightforward attack by Governor Bush on theGoldwater-Reagan wing of the Republican Party in his Indianapolisspeech is, in fact, an attack on Steve Forbes and Dan Quayle, whobest represent that tradition among the Republican Presidentialhopefuls. Given the absurd campaign contribution limits, thehandiwork of Common Cause, the attack is primarily focused on Mr.Forbes, who is the only candidate with the resources to seriouslychallenge Mr. Bush.

The task for Mr. Forbes, who carries the Reagan mantle, is toexpose George W. as, if not a New Democrat, an EasternEstablishment Republican in good standing. That won't be easy, asthe Governor has surrounded himself with conservatives, a fewformer Reagan advisers and even a libertarian or two, perhaps tolimit scrutiny of his actual agenda.

But that agenda was on display in Indianapolis last week, and itought to give pause to those limited-government Republicans whotruly want to put an end to Bill Clinton's political legacy.