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Bush, Gore Are Remapping Their Parties' Traditional Frontiers

Policy: Old lines blur as vice president vows to erase debt and Texas governor proposes record new spending by a Republican.


WASHINGTON — As the issue debate intensifies between Al Gore and George W. Bush, new twists are subtly reshaping old lines of division between the two parties.

Much of the argument is falling along familiar lines, with Bush accusing Gore of promoting "big government" and Gore accusing Bush of favoring tax cuts for the wealthy. But in other ways their conflict illuminates the effects of each man's efforts to rethink his party's traditional agenda.

While Bush charges Gore with promoting too much spending, the vice president has actually moved to his rival's right on one key element of the fiscal debate: Gore has pledged to pay off the publicly held national debt by 2012--a promise Bush hasn't matched.

And even as Bush accuses Gore of siding with "the planners and the thinkers" in Washington, the Texas governor has proposed far more new spending than any Republican presidential nominee in years--and consistently sought to signal that he rejects the ideological opposition to government that came to define GOP congressional leaders.

Bush and Gore, in fact, share several common pillars for their domestic agendas. Both say the federal government, in pursuing its aims, should rely more on market forces, the states and providing "tools" to individuals. On issues from Social Security and Medicare to education, the critical difference is that Bush is willing to push further in devolving power from Washington while Gore is more sensitive to maintaining a national safety net that guarantees minimum benefits to all Americans.

The resulting contrasts may not approach the ideological chasms that separated earlier presidential rivals, such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan and Walter F. Mondale. But the differences in this campaign still point toward disparate visions of how Washington can promote prosperity and encourage reform in such core public priorities as health care, education and retirement programs.

Bush is steadily escalating his efforts to portray Gore as an old-style Democrat offering a traditional liberal agenda of more federal spending and regulation. "They stand on the side of big government," Bush declared at a rally in Westminster last week. "We stand on the side of America's families."

This sharpened ideological focus represents, in part, an acknowledgment by Bush's aides that questions of character and ethics alone won't be sufficient to erase Gore's lead in recent polls. But it also reflects their belief that voters will recoil from Gore's ideas--like his plan to provide prescription drugs for seniors--if they perceive them as meddlesome "command and control" directives from Washington.

Bush's new thrust creates intriguing political tests for both candidates. The challenge for Bush is to maintain his identity as "a different kind of Republican" while attacking Gore in the terms conservatives have long used to denounce Democrats.

Bush hopes to achieve this balance by insisting he does "not believe government is the enemy," as he put it in a speech Saturday to California Republicans. He will continue to argue that his agenda accepts a federal role in solving problems such as access to health care but offers solutions that "are more conservative and market-oriented," like tax credits for the uninsured.

But Democrats--and even some Republicans--believe those notes could be overwhelmed by Bush's broader crescendo attacking big government. "Instead of innovation, he's offering the old ideological critique of Democrats," says Will Marshall, director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

Yet that critique still creates challenges for Gore. Much of the "new Democrat" agenda that President Clinton and Gore have pursued was designed to insulate their party precisely from the charge that it favors big government.

Bush Cites Substantial New Spending by Gore

Bush's principal evidence in reviving that accusation is the substantial new spending Gore has proposed--just under $900 billion, by his own reckoning, over the next decade. And the GOP staff of the Senate Budget Committee contends that Gore underestimates the cost of his plans by anywhere from $27 billion to $900 billion, which could push the total new spending near $2 trillion.

Bush, by contrast, has proposed about $475 billion in new spending over the next decade, with the largest amounts devoted to education, the tax credit for the uninsured and prescription drugs for the elderly. Those are huge sums compared to recent GOP nominees but far less than Gore has proposed for those same priorities. The difference is that Bush has proposed an income tax cut that would cost at least $1.3 trillion over the next decade, while Gore is offering more targeted tax cuts of slightly less than $500 billion.

These contrasts allow Bush to frame the budget debate in familiar terms, presenting Gore as a big spender and himself as the candidate of limited government.

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