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Bush's Attacks on Clinton's Record May Make His Own Road Rockier

George W. Bush embodies a generation of conservatives confident they have seized the mantle of reform from Democrats wedded to old approaches. But on all these issues, polls show plenty of support for competing Al Gore ideas, such as paying down the national debt or spending more on schools.

August 07, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

It's become conventional wisdom to look at George W. Bush as a belt-and-suspenders guy, utterly averse to risk. And like most journalistic shorthand, that assessment has at least some basis in fact. In the selection of Dick Cheney as his running mate, it was as if some recessive Bush family gene for caution suddenly resurfaced. It's easy to imagine the candidate's father, former President Bush, on the phone to George W., whispering, "It wouldn't be prudent," as the Texas governor discarded bolder choices such as Thomas J. Ridge or John McCain.

But the younger Bush, at times, has been willing to roll the dice. He did it in 1997 when he proposed a massive overhaul of the Texas tax system. And he did it twice more in his often eloquent acceptance speech at the Republican convention last week. Embedded in the speech were two big gambles that could loom over the fall campaign. One is that Bush can define the Clinton era as a failure, not only in moral but policy terms. The second is that Bush can compete with Vice President Al Gore on core domestic issues that Democrats consider their own--education, Social Security, Medicare and uplifting the poor.

Of the two, the most audacious gamble is Bush's effort to paint President Clinton's two terms as a "missed opportunity." Bush, like most Republicans, has long portrayed Clinton's presidency as an ethical failure. And since clinching the GOP nomination in March, Bush has charged that Clinton and Gore have dodged several tough, long-term issues--particularly education and entitlement reform.

But in their convention speeches last week, Bush and Cheney went further. Both men characterized Clinton and Gore as irrelevant bystanders in these fat years. Rhetorically separating the capital from the country, the GOP ticket offered a kind of immaculate conception theory of prosperity. Good times, they argued, emerged almost as a natural phenomenon in the 1990s; Washington was at best irrelevant, at worst complacent in failing to seize the opportunities that the strong economy presented. "For eight years, the Clinton-Gore administration has coasted through prosperity," insisted Bush.

That may be a hard sell. Even the most die-hard Democrat wouldn't attribute all the positive trends of the past eight years to Clinton policies. But it's another thing to say that the federal budget deals of 1993 and 1997 that replaced massive federal deficits with expanding surpluses have been irrelevant to the economy. Or that the welfare reform bill of 1996 hasn't driven the historic reduction in the welfare rolls. Or that the 1993 increase in the earned-income tax credit hasn't lifted millions of working-poor families above the poverty line.

Or, for that matter, that tougher enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act, which pressures banks to lend to low-income borrowers, hasn't helped fuel the unprecedented gains in homeownership among blacks and Latinos over the past eight years. Or that the federal subsidies to hire thousands of new police officers (even if not the 100,000 that Clinton billed) and spread the use of community policing have contributed nothing to the falling crime rate. "Good times don't just happen," argues Bruce Reed, Clinton's chief domestic policy advisor. "They are the result of good choices."

So far, Gore has had trouble selling that argument; he's not running nearly as well among voters satisfied with the country's direction as the nominee of the party holding the White House usually does. But Democrats believe Bush's effort to portray the past eight years as a "squandered" opportunity may inadvertently provide the backdrop they need to drive home their case that the country is better off now than when Republicans held the Oval Office.

And, in fact, when they take the stage at their convention in Los Angeles next week, Clinton and Gore can argue that America has made more progress on most key economic and social challenges in the past eight years than it did in the 12 that Ronald Reagan and Bush's father sat in the White House. During the Reagan and Bush years, the economy created 18.5 million new jobs; in less than eight years under Clinton, it's created 22.1 million. Under Reagan and Bush the federal deficit rose from $74 billion to $290 billion; in 1999, the surplus hit $124 billion. From 1980 through 1992, the number of people on welfare increased by almost 30%; since then, it's fallen by more than 40%. From 1980 through 1992, the violent crime rate increased by a fourth; since 1993, it's dropped by a fifth. The list goes on.

Thus Bush's gamble. If his disparaging characterization of the Clinton years has given Gore a greater opportunity to ask voters the classic question--"Are you better off than you were eight years ago?"--then Bush undoubtedly has made his own road rockier.

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