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Gov. Bush's Presidential Gambit May Fly Like Old Dukakis Boomerang

Experience as an executive gives governors seeking the White House a great calling card with voters. But it also gives their opponents a target-rich environment of decisions to shoot at.

May 03, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

AUSTIN, Texas — As it confronts a long list of knotty disputes, the Texas state Legislature these days is operating on two levels. Legislators are contending with all the usual considerations of how their decisions will play in the state. But also looming over them is the amorphous yet inescapable awareness that their actions could affect Gov. George W. Bush's national ambitions.

When Bush formally joins the GOP presidential race later this year, his fate will be determined largely by his proposals on, and command of, national and international issues. But his record on state issues will also prove crucial to the way he is defined, both by his own campaign and by his opponents. "Bush's record is going to be very important," says one advisor to Vice President Al Gore. "Go back to what happened to Michael Dukakis in '87 and '88. . . . All of that stuff is going to be picked over."

In that early shot across the bow, the key is the reference to Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor who won the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Dukakis' experience defines the risk for governors seeking the presidency.

By any reasonable measure, Dukakis' overall tenure in Massachusetts was a success, marked by an economic boom and innovative welfare reform. But he made several decisions that, although accepted in his own (unusually liberal) state, did not play well with a national audience. Chief among these were his veto of legislation requiring teachers to lead the pledge of allegiance and his support of a state prison furlough program that eventually introduced the world to Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who terrorized a young couple while on a weekend pass.

When Dukakis was able to focus on his broad record (remember the Massachusetts miracle?), his state experience provided him a powerful foundation. But when Republican nominee George Bush (the Texas governor's father) shifted the spotlight to Horton and the pledge, Dukakis' gubernatorial record functioned more like a coffin.

Former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton faced similar, though less acute, problems in 1992; he wanted to talk about his pedigree as an education and welfare reformer but was forced to rebut attacks from Bush on his cozy relationship with polluters and other (unusually incestuous) Arkansas traditions. Now, in an irresistible historical boomerang, Bush the younger must sell his state experience--while defending the unique aspects of his state's (unusually conservative) political culture.

Like many governors in this decade of prosperity and positive social trends, Bush has compiled a strong overall record. He has presided over soaring budget surpluses and shrinking welfare rolls. He has displayed a genuine commitment to reforming public education and been rewarded with rising test scores. And even Democrats admit he has set an inclusive, bipartisan tone for state politics.

"When you look at the full record, you will see a record of accomplishment, of leadership and, perhaps most importantly, a leader who has set a tone that says you don't have to have the partisan bickering you see in Washington," argues Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director.

But just as Bush's father did to Dukakis in 1988, the Texas governor's rivals today are looking for loose threads that can unravel this self-portrait. Some are already dangling.

In the Republican primary, Bush may face attacks from the right on his failure to pass a school voucher plan. Conservatives are also likely to target his 1997 plan to reduce property taxes by raising business and sales taxes. That may be one reason Bush is so intent on winning big property tax cuts from the Legislature this year, a demand that could produce gridlock here unless the state comptroller finds more money in her next budget forecast.

Still, the underlying conservative climate in Texas ensures that Bush's record won't provide his Republican opponents too many opportunities to accuse him of creeping moderation. For that same reason, though, his record may provide more fertile ground for Democrats if he wins the nomination.

The Democratic hit list could start with the environment. This year, Bush is seeking voluntary, not mandatory, cleanup from older, high-pollution plants and oil refineries that were given grandfathered exemptions when the state enacted its clean air law in 1971. In a state where environmental groups are weak, the voluntary reductions are likely to become law. But in a measure of what might lie ahead for Bush, Texas environmentalists denouncing the idea on Friday released a lengthy list of presidential contributions he has received from grandfathered companies and their lawyers.

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