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Tax Cut Clouds Bush's Urban Agenda

Policy: Critics say the government won't have enough money to give big cities needed help.


WASHINGTON — President Bush will arrive in Los Angeles today bearing a more ambitious urban agenda than his father offered after the city's riots 10 years ago--but still facing charges that his tax cut has made it impossible for Washington to meaningfully confront the most pressing problems facing big cities.

Bush has spent much more time in urban settings than his father, former President Bush, whose failure to respond more aggressively to the 1992 Los Angeles riots may have been a turning point in his defeat that year by Bill Clinton.

And compared to his father, Bush has offered more comprehensive proposals to reform schools and the welfare system, to invigorate government partnerships with religious charities, and to encourage homeownership in the cities.

These initiatives generally have won Bush more praise from Democrats than almost anything else in his domestic agenda. Yet Bush continues to draw criticism from Democrats and some urban experts not so much for what he is doing in the cities as for what he isn't.

Many critics argue that the $1.3-trillion tax cut Bush pushed through Congress last year--coupled with the unexpected costs of the war against terrorism--has denied government the funds to make significant investments in urban problems from schools to public safety. "The tax cut . . . will probably crowd out the ability to make the kind of investments that are needed," says Bruce Katz, a former Clinton administration official who now directs the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution.

White House officials reject that analysis, pointing to increased funding for federal programs aimed at high-poverty public schools and a tax credit Bush has proposed to encourage urban homeownership. "Critics of the administration are always going to talk about the tax cut," one White House aide said, "but I don't think it is going to affect our ability to put money into good programs."

In some ways, these arguments echo the campaign debate over the cities between Clinton and former President Bush that flashed after the 1992 riots.

Though policy affecting the cities did not remain a central issue in that campaign, the Los Angeles riots still may have been a pivotal moment. When they erupted, Clinton was badly bruised by a Democratic primary victory that had raised questions about his honesty and integrity.

But Clinton reacted quickly to the riots. In a series of speeches and a dramatic visit to South-Central Los Angeles, he offered an extensive series of policies that blended new government spending in areas such as education, calls for personal responsibility and efforts to encourage greater private investment in the cities.

Former President Bush, meanwhile, appeared hesitant. Initially he emphasized law-and-order themes in denouncing the rioters. He didn't tour Los Angeles until a week after the violence began--three days after Clinton. And, rather than offering new ideas, the president repeated initiatives he already had proposed.

Jack Kemp, Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who accompanied the president on the trip, says the charge that he was not interested in the cities was unfair. But some believe Bush's failure to respond more aggressively helped cement the image that he lacked an agenda for, or even much interest in, domestic problems.

By contrast, during his presidential campaign, the younger Bush visited urban neighborhoods more frequently than most Republican candidates to highlight his ideas for reforming schools and increasing government partnerships with faith-based charities.

Tellingly, in Los Angeles today, Bush will visit the community development arm of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church--the same church that was Clinton's first stop when he toured Los Angeles after the riots.

"Bush is uncommonly at home," says Kemp, who for many years has urged the GOP to court minorities. "He's very much at ease in an urban setting."

In substance, Bush's approach to urban issues lands somewhere between his father's agenda (which was heavily influenced by Kemp's ideas) and Clinton's. Bush's agenda shares several common themes with Clinton's--such as rewarding work, encouraging homeownership and spurring community action. But Bush generally supports a government role much more limited than Clinton preferred, and more expansive than his father would accept.

Education is one example. The elder Bush built his education reform agenda around vouchers that parents could use to send their children to private schools.

Though the younger Bush also supports vouchers, he constructed the education reform bill he steered through Congress last year around a federal mandate that states annually test students in reading and math--and undertake corrective actions in schools that persistently fail to improve student performance. That was a more intrusive federal role than conservatives usually prefer, but the bill passed with broad Democratic support.

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