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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

On Key Issues, Bush Sounds More Like a Centrist Democrat Than Gore

April 17, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Since the mid-1980s, the Democratic Leadership Council and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, have been the intellectual engines of the centrist New Democrat movement. From welfare reform to national service to fiscal discipline, their ideas have shaped President Clinton's agenda more than any other source. Al Gore relied heavily on DLC themes and ideas in his first bid for the presidency (back in 1988), and even today his top issues advisor, Elaine Kamarck, is a DLC alumna.

But in the past few months, presumptive Republican nominee George W. Bush appears to have been reading from the DLC playbook more closely than Gore. On a series of major issues, Bush has embraced the exact position taken by the DLC and its congressional allies, while Gore has either kept his distance or actively opposed the DLC stance. The DLC still agrees with Gore on far more issues than with Bush, but the unusual alignment isn't just coincidence either. It's a measure of revealing shifts in the ideological landscape for both parties.

The Bush-DLC convergence begins with health care. For months, the DLC has pushed tax credits as the best way to help the uninsured buy coverage; New Democrat stalwarts Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Rep. Calvin M. Dooley of Visalia are co-sponsoring a bipartisan tax credit plan for the uninsured. The health care proposal Bush unveiled last week--which Gore immediately denounced as inefficient and inadequate--largely follows that blueprint.

Medicare is next. Clinton and Gore want to reserve nearly $400 billion from the expected federal surplus over the next decade for Medicare while adding a prescription drug benefit and only modestly restructuring the program to control costs. The DLC and Bush both oppose providing such vast sums without more sweeping reform first. Bush has endorsed DLC-backed legislation from Breaux and Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that would transform Medicare, which now pays doctors and hospitals directly, into a program that provides seniors a fixed sum to purchase private insurance; Gore rejects the idea, saying it would lead to a "two-tier" system that provides the affluent better care.

Likewise, DLC leaders such as Breaux and Will Marshall, the Progressive Policy Institute's president, say it's a mistake to transfer trillions of general revenue dollars into Social Security after 2011, as Clinton and Gore are proposing, without first restructuring the program. That's Bush's position too. He and the DLC both want to partially privatize Social Security by diverting part of the payroll tax into individual accounts that workers could invest in the stock market for their own retirement. Gore rejects the idea as too risky.

There's more. The ambitious (and largely DLC-drafted) education reform package recently introduced by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) follows the same tracks as Bush's plan by promising states more control over federal education dollars in return for tougher accountability measures. Gore, like Clinton, instead would require states to undertake specific reforms (such as intervening in failing schools), or else face a loss of federal funds. Similarly, the DLC's resistance to including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements now places it closer to Bush than Gore on that issue too.

This doesn't mean Bush is now a New Democrat. DLC types disagree with Bush on almost all social issues, starting with abortion and gun control. Almost all DLC Democrats oppose school vouchers, which Bush backs. And New Democrats universally oppose Bush's proposed across-the-board cut in income taxes, arguing that the money would be better spent on public investments; indeed, the DLC wants to couple education reform with far more federal spending than Bush has proposed and would spend more in its tax credit plan for the uninsured as well.

But disagreements between Bush and an organization so intimately linked to the Clinton administration are hardly surprising. It's more revealing that Bush and the DLC agree so much on so many major issues.

The convergence speaks volumes about Bush's renewed determination to steer the GOP away from the hard-line anti-government agenda that defined the party after its congressional takeover in 1994. On each of the issues where he's come close to the DLC, Bush rejected more conservative alternatives that would have further minimized Washington's role; while generally proposing only modest new federal spending, he's also consistently renounced the conservative rallying cry that the best thing Washington can do is simply get out of the way. "We have been willing to cross an ideological boundary here that says markets are not enough to solve social problems," says one senior Bush advisor.

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