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Bush Compassion Reined by Fiscal Conservative Side

Agenda: His policies mix a lot of the right with a bit of the left, but some believe the inherent conflicts can undermine his focus on local problem solving.


WASHINGTON — Sometimes his themes reprise Ronald Reagan. Other times they echo Bill Clinton.

Depending on the issue and the audience, President Bush can be equally comfortable denouncing the dangers of big government or extolling Washington's potential to spur creative local solutions to entrenched social problems.

Through his first 100 days, Bush has sketched an agenda that takes the Republican Party in some new directions--especially on issues relating to the needy--but mostly reaffirms the prevailing currents of conservative thought that have dominated the GOP since his father's defeat in 1992.

Indeed, on the left and the right, perhaps the principal surprise of Bush's first months in office is how much core conservatism is embedded within his vision of "compassionate conservatism." Martin Anderson, former President Reagan's top domestic policy advisor, says: "Reagan would have been comfortable with what Bush is doing, especially on the major issues. If you look at the entire range of conservative positions, that's where Bush is."

The picture actually is more complex. Compared to Reagan, who built his political appeal around the stark contention that "government is the problem," Bush accepts a larger responsibility for Washington in confronting problems such as persistent poverty and faltering public schools.

And the role Bush defines for Washington in those arenas overlaps Clinton's vision of government as catalyst, in which the federal role is providing local institutions and individuals the means to solve problems themselves.

To Karl Rove, Bush's political strategist, that focus on supporting local problem-solving is "the essence" of the president's compassionate conservatism. That theme runs through everything from Bush's endorsement of block grants in education to his push to increase government partnerships with grass-roots, religion-based charities.

Yet Bush has proposed only modest new funding to support those local efforts. On education, which he has labeled his top domestic priority, he has proposed spending increases much smaller than those Clinton signed into law. And even these are the favored exceptions in Bush's proposed budget, which would squeeze the growth of domestic spending for a decade while imposing the largest tax cut since Reagan's in 1981.

In a rising chorus, Democrats are maintaining that these conventionally conservative fiscal priorities--and Bush's equally resolute skepticism of federal environmental and workplace safety regulation--are undermining his promise of compassion.

"He promised to bring a reform brand of conservatism to Washington and instead what he's done is brought back the supply-side ideology--cutting government's allowance and giving the powerful tax relief and redress from what they regard as burdensome regulation," says Will Marshall, executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

A Chasm Remains

Marshall's disillusion embodies an important larger trend shaping Bush's presidency. During the campaign, Bush identified the Progressive Policy Institute as a source of ideas that could provide the basis for compromise across party lines. His first 100 days underscore how much space still separates even centrist Democrats from Bush's vision of government's proper role.

Like Clinton before him, Bush entered office hoping to find new compromises--a "third way"--out of the long-standing arguments between the parties. Instead, the response to his agenda--particularly the nearly party-line votes in the House and Senate on his tax and spending plan--has shown how enduring and intransigent those disagreements remain.

The political question is which side of Bush's agenda--the new compassion or the conventional conservatism--ultimately will define his presidency in the eyes of swing voters.

Bush has solidified his nearly unanimous support from rank-and-file Republicans, with conservatives raving about his commitment to tax cuts and his rolling back of Clinton administration regulations.

And Bush is enjoying a strong overall job approval rating at the 100-day mark, with about 60% of Americans in a flurry of new polls approving of his performance. So far, surveys suggest that most Americans see Bush as relatively centrist, personally honest and trustworthy, with a clear vision for the country's future. "People have confidence in this person," Rove says.

But red flags also ripple through the early polls. The latest surveys suggest that Bush has made more progress personally ingratiating himself with the public than in selling his agenda.

When the tax and regulatory fights dominated the news earlier this spring, his disapproval rating among independents spiked upward only to retreat after the release of the U.S. spy plane crew detained in China. And polls now routinely find that most Americans believe Bush is more concerned about big business and the wealthy than about average citizens.

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