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Not in recent memory has there been so much enthusiasm about a
presidential candidate as there is about George W. Bush. Is this all
media hype or something more?

The launching of his campaign in Iowa proved that genuine excitement
exists among the voters about his candidacy. This would be
understandable if his appeal were merely among Republican voters. They
have been steadily disappointed since it became obvious that their 1994
congressional majority was not going to usher in a new era of
conservatism.

But Bush’s magnetism is transcending party lines; there is no other
way to explain his phenomenal poll numbers. With all the build up and
anticipation, he is being treated like a political messiah.

Some say that Bush’s prohibitive popularity has nothing to do with
him personally. They attribute it to his name and to his theme of
compassionate conservatism.

During this marathon pre-campaign season, I too have wondered whether
the Republicans’ fixation on Bush was grossly superficial — a tattered
party in desperate search for a winner, a unifier. But after observing
and hearing him, I am convinced that he is more than the son of a former
president, the purveyor of a more electorate-friendly conservatism or a
manufactured candidate to fill the vacuum for the beleaguered GOP.

Bush is for real and will be underestimated by his rivals at their
peril. Political ideology aside for a moment, he appears to possess
those intangible qualities that make him presidential timber (as opposed
to ordinary timber, like his likely opponent, Al Gore), including a
contagious optimism and a refreshing Christian humility.

Now, what about his ideology? Many of us conservatives have been a
bit put off by his seemingly apologetic signature slogan, “compassionate
conservatism.” It smacks of his father’s “kinder, gentler America.”

That is, many of us have inferred in the slogan an apology for an
ideology we hold dear and do not believe needs excuses. But is this
inference valid?

My hope is that Bush isn’t trying to distance himself from mainstream
conservatism at all. While his father’s “kinder, gentler America”
represented a slap at Reaganism, W’s “compassionate conservatism” may
imply no indictments of conservatism. He may just be shrewdly trying to
present it in a more favorable light, seeking for conservatism a
face-lift, not a body transplant.

Someone ashamed of the right wouldn’t make the statement, “I know
Republicans across the country are generous of heart.” And incidentally,
he’s right. We’re just not generous with other people’s money.

In fact, Bush seems more anxious to distance himself from some of his
father’s domestic policies than from Reagan’s.

His proposals seem to constitute more of a repackaging, than a
restructuring of conservatism. As Texas governor, he has engineered the
largest tax cuts in the state’s history and is also promising to make
tax cuts a part of his national agenda.

Bush said, “The purpose of prosperity is to make sure no one is left
out and no one is left behind.” This sounds like Reagan/Kemp’s “a rising
tide lifts all boats.” And the Reagan record, by the way, proves that
reductions in marginal income tax rates can and do improve the lot of
all sectors of society. The rich got richer, to be sure, but so did the
poor and middle classes.

Bush has announced a goal of “ushering in the responsibility era.”
Granted this is a generality, but it should be anathema to liberals, not
conservatives.

He strongly favors school choice and has said that he would support
allowing Americans to invest part of their Social Security benefits in
private accounts. These are decidedly conservative (and compassionate)
notions.

Bush advocates deregulation measures designed to make it easier for
private and church-affiliated charities to work with state and federal
governments to provide service to the needy. If for no other reason,
this is delicious in its sheer potential for making liberals recoil in
horror.

Despite my initial concerns, I prefer to give Bush the benefit of the
doubt.

A few speeches, however, are hardly enough to enable us to assess his
policy positions on a wide range of issues. Over the next few months, as
he fills in the blanks, we will find out whether he indeed is a
conservative at heart or if “compassionate conservatism” is a simply a
disguise for establishment Republicanism.

If the former, Bush should have no trouble rallying the party’s base
and galloping toward the presidential prize. If the latter, his
anointing may be the last straw in alienating the party’s conservative
base and driving it toward that dreaded third party.

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