The Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, October 14, 1998

Front Page report

 

Party Lines

Clinton’s ‘Third Way’ Inspires

Republicans To Forge Their Own

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Texas Gov. Bush Embodies GOP

Efforts to Retake Political Middle Ground

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Looking for a ‘Sister Souljah’

By John Harwood

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

CARTHAGE, Texas – The bus called ‘Asphalt One’Rolls into this tiny east Texas town, distilling Gov. George W. Bush’s campaign message into two words emblazoned on its flank: "Opportunity" and "Responsibility."

Those are the very words, it turns out that Bill Clinton used to define his New Democrat insurgency six years ago. "You’re kidding me, " says Mr. Bush, startled when informed of the unwelcome reminder of the campaign that ended his father’s career. "I was focused on ‘four more years.’"

Which is why, though the governor doesn’t intend it, the themes of his runaway re-election bid are a testament to the imprint Mr. Clinton has already left on American politics. Even as the president’s personal misconduct has exposed him to a congressional impeachment inquiry, the hybrid political style he has fostered is thriving – and in some of the most unlikely places.

Mr. Clinton calls it the "Third Way," an approach reconciling American’s contemporary skepticism toward big government programs with their desire for an activist approach to public problems. At home, that approach gave Mr. Clinton two presidential election victories after three consecutive defeats for his party. It also reshaped the Democrats’ tattered image on issues of fiscal responsibility, crime and welfare. Abroad, the Third Way has become a model for left-leaning political parties in England and Germany as well, where Tony Blair’s Labor Party and Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats have used it recently to win power.

Now Clinton’s provoking change even among his most vehement political adversaries. By exposing the political vulnerabilities of the GOP’s divergent libertarian and religious conservative wings, the Democratic president is clearing a path for the rise of New Republicans, who are prospering in the run-up to this fall’s elections and hold the key to the party’s chances of recapturing the White House.

Mr. Bush, the front-runner for his party’s 2000 presidential nomination, has become the pre-eminent example in just one term as governor of Texas. He has sent his approval ratings beyond 70% by blending conservative cultural themes, emphasizing public-education improvements and shunning ethnically divisive issues while courting the state’s sizable Hispanic vote. "I’m a uniter," he says, "not a divider."

So are his party’s other emerging stars. They represent a disparate group geographically and ideologically; some oppose abortion rights, while some support them, for instance. Their common trait is an ability to command broad support with an activist agenda, unshackled by images of social intolerance. Just as significant, they have moved beyond the antigovernment themes that so strongly defined the GOP earlier in this decade.

These New Republicans include such popular governors as Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, their re-election campaigns fueled by accomplishments on taxes, welfare, education and health policy. They include Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, an earnest Morman who’s an innovator on environmental and technology policy, and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a scrappy Italian Catholic who has been winning points for lowering crime in the city and curbing pornography in Times Square. On Capitol Hill, House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich of Ohio has bucked GOP stereotypes with his commitment to lopping "corporate welfare" subsidies from the budget. Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona has rankled party insiders with his support for campaign-finance overhaul and antitobacco legislation.

"Clinton has done us a favor by accelerating the evolution of a new kind of politics in this country," says former GOP Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber. "He’s forced Republicans to be able to beat his ideas with our own."

"Republicans have to come up with our own version of a new way," adds Don Fierce, a veteran Republican strategist. "There’s no mechanism in place, or consensus for how to get there. But there’s where we have to go."

Like stalwart Democratic constituencies jolted by Mr. Clinton’s support for free trade and welfare overhaul, some GOP economic conservatives are alarmed by the prospect. A recent Cato Institute report lamented recent spending increases by the nation’s governors, 32 of whom are now Republicans. Cato analyst Steve Moore worries that the group may soon become "50 Bill Clintons," adding, "Then the question really becomes, does it matter who’s in power?"

Nor are Religious conservatives, who have complained all year that Republican leaders have been slighting their concerns, entranced by the prospect of a new GOP political formula. Their clout remains an obstacle to more-explicit moves to soften the antiabortion plank of the Republican Party platform - moves that some party operatives consider important for the GOP’s ability to reconnect with moderate voters.

Yet Mr. Clinton’s experience proved that even symbolic demonstrations of independence from old – line factions can yield big dividends. Some GOP strategists look back admiringly on how Mr. Clinton profited among white swing voters from his calculated 1992 rebuke of rap singer Sister Souljah for sounding violent themes, and they contemplate parallel GOP gestures toward the religious right.

"One of the things we have to do is show we are not … intolerant," says Tony Fabrizio, pollster for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. "The person who comes up with the ‘Sister Souljah’ version of that will do a great deal for the Republican Party."

Mr. Bush, dealing from strength within the undeclared GOP primary field, may be in the best position to do that. He has already displayed his willingness to stand up to conservative hard – liners. He tamped down attacks by religious conservatives on gay Republicans at this summer’s state GOP convention.

"You can’t lead by pitting one group of people against another," he says. He has also conspicuously dissented from attempts by Republicans in California and some other states to bar illegal immigrants from public schools.

Just four years ago, Mr. Bush wasn’t even considered the most promising New Republican in his own family. But younger brother Jeb Bush, who displayed greater devotion to conservatism in that turbulent year of GOP ascendance, lost his bid for the Florida governorship, while George W, knocked off popular Texas Democratic Gov. Ann Richards.

He set out in Austin cautiously, pushing though campaign pledges to toughen welfare and juvenile-justice programs, overhaul the tort system and implement a package of education changes, including increasing local districts’ control of public education. All had been moving through the Democratic-controlled legislature before his term began. But the new governor won points for setting achievable goals and establishing more cordial relations with legislators of both parties than his Democratic predecessor.

Mr. Bush grew bolder during his second legislative session, in 1997. He riled Democratic liberals with a plan, more far-reaching than any state had tried, to turn over management of the state welfare and Medicaid programs to private contractors. And he rattled some conservative Republicans with a complex tax-system overhaul that would have raised some taxes on business in order to cut property taxes and increase the state government’s share of education funding.

Neither initiative was realized. Labor unions persuaded the Clinton administration to withhold the federal permission needed for privatization, and the legislature

Scuttled his tax overhaul in favor of a simple $1 billion property-tax cut.

Remarkably, however, Mr. Bush’s popularity didn’t suffer. "Nobody punished him for failing," says Sen. Bill Ratliff, a Republican from east Texas. A major reason is the absence of the sort of partisan recriminations that have become so commonplace – and politically damaging – on Capitol Hill.

"The contrast is so stark" with Washington, Mr. Ratliff explains. Retiring Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a Democrat, has endorsed Mr. Bush’s re-election over Democratic challenger Garry Mauro. (The lieutenant governor is elected separately.)

Yet the New Republican politics Mr. Bush is helping to shape won’t simply echo the New Democrats. GOP leaders remain far more comfortable turning to religious and other nonprofit institutions to solve public problems. Mr. Bush’s proudest innovation as governor, he says, is a program permitting welfare recipients to receive assistance from faith-based organizations.

New Republicans also favor a more limited role for government. The Cato Institute, in fact, praises Mr. Bush’s fiscal record as "surprisingly tightfisted." Though the state’s general-fund spending has increased 29% in the past four years, the increase lags behind growth in population and personal income.

What makes the New Republicans distinctive is that they don’t project reflexive hostility to government. "Education is to a state what national defense is to the federal government, " Mr. Bush told an east Texas audience last month. "We better get it right." One recent campaign ad emphasizes his new plan to cut property taxes by $2 billion while investing $1.6 billion for teacher pay raises and other initiatives, a combination reminiscent of the New Democrats’ familiar "cut and invest" slogan.

He also joins Mr. Clinton in rejecting the insular approach toward international affairs espoused by some conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. In 1995, searching for bipartisan support for a plan to bail out the Mexican peso, Mr. Clinton enlisted Gov. Bush to help.

That was the only substantive conversation the governor of the nation’s second-most-populous state and the president have had during the past four years. While avoiding expressing outright contempt for Mr. Clinton, the 52-year-old Mr. Bush, born six weeks before the president, still rues the "ugly" 1992 campaign and the "sad … embarrassing" scandal now engulfing the White House.

Some GOP figures, including Mr. Weber, once thought the senior George Bush would be the one to spell out a New Republican agenda after Ronald Reagan. But President Bush never fleshed out the "kinder, gentler" vision he had in mind. Now, it’s up to the likes of George W. Bush and his brother, Jeb, favored to win the Florida governorship on his second try next month after softening his political profile.

Like his father, the Texas Bush remains a pedestrian stump speaker, offering a bland invocation of the Responsibility Era to remind young Americans of the importance of making "right choices." Mr. Bush acknowledges his own "irresponsible" personal behavior, including excessive drinking, as a young Baby Boomer but says he learned from past mistakes.

Nor does he care for philosophical ruminations. "I believe that all government power ought to empower individuals," he says, and "align responsibilityu and authority at the local level."

At the personal level, though, his skills are evident. At the community center in Carthage, he works the crowd with disarming, Clinton-style ease, sharing smiles, hugs and back –slaps with every voter lingering after his speech, even rubbing noses with a toddler on cue while her mother snaps a picture.

This guy’s got a magnetism most politicians don’t have," says Tom Whaley, a small businessman who turns out to see Mr. Bush at a rally in Kilgore later that day. Skeptics say that Mr. Bush’s personal charm and the sunny public mood engendered by economic well-being mask a record of only modest accomplishments.

Mr. Bush also benefits from the pent-up GOP frustration over two consecutive presidential defeats. "There’s a deep yearning within the Republican Party to turn the page to a new generation of leadership," says David Hill, a Texas-based GOP pollster.

One unanswered question is whether the leaders of the social conservative movement share that yearning sufficiently to temper their zeal for imposing litmus tests on GOP leaders on abortion and other issues. Former Texas Republican chairman Tom Pauken isn’t impressed with Mr. Bush’s "politics of pragmatism" and will back a more devoted conservative in 2000 – even though Mr. Bush is opposed to abortion.

For others, the politics of pragmatism sounds just right. "I don’t think there’s five cents’ difference between my philosophy and the governor’s," says John Montford, chancelllor of Texas Tech University and a former Democratic leader in the state senate.

In 1991, Mr. Montford traveled to Cleveland with a little-known presidential hopeful named Bill Clinton and hailed the DLC as the "salvation of the Democratic Party." This fall, he’s backing Mr. Bush’s re-election.

 

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