George W. Bush’s phenomenal popularity has confounded policy wonks on
both sides of the political spectrum in part because he has yet to
define himself ideologically.

Democrats are scratching their heads in consternation, utterly
impotent to develop a strategy to counter Dubya when they can’t even pin
him down on the issues. Conservative Republicans are equally perplexed
and monumentally distrustful, believing that true conservatives are
unapologetic about their policy positions.

In the meantime, the bulk of Republican voters and many Clinton-weary
Democrats appear untroubled by Dubya’s vaguely defined image. They view
him as the one person who has the best chance to defeat Clinton’s
tainted successor, Al Gore, and restore integrity to the White House.

Members of the press are equally frustrated with Dubya’s perceived
evasiveness. There is nothing they hate worse (other than conservatism)
than a politician who won’t cooperate with them by gushing forth on all
the issues. After all, they have to write about something. And Dubya
hasn’t been willing to give them any material.

Well, they thought they were going to get even with Bush. They
fabricated front-page news out of a mere rumor about his cocaine usage
that was unsupported even by an allegation.

Just as they were closing in for the kill, Dubya slipped their noose
by confronting them directly on the very issue of disclosure. How dare
he draw his line in the sand by challenging their time-honored mantra,
“the public’s right to know”? Worse yet, he seems to have gotten away
with it.

Last Friday, Bush finally offered us some real meat to sink our teeth
into by unveiling his education proposal. Or did he?

It seems that his plan, though specific in nature, does not lend
itself to easy ideological classification. There are aspects to please
and rankle both liberals and conservatives, while intriguing those in
the center. So, Bush confounds again. His first major policy revelation,
rather than finally defining him, exacerbates his already mysterious
political persona.

Liberals, conservatives and the press are left shaking their heads in
bewilderment (albeit in various directions), and Bush is again laughing
— at least winking — all the way to the electoral bank.

Bush, tailoring his philosophy of “compassionate conservatism” to
education, advocated stripping federal dollars away from underperforming
schools and giving the money to parents.

“My administration will require every federal program … to prove
results. If it cannot, we will shift that money to a program that is
using it wisely. No federal education program will be reauthorized
merely because it has existed for years. It is more important to do good
than to feel good.”

Bush continues to demonstrate his political acuity. It was no
accident that he chose this issue first. While education has long been a
priority for him, he also knows that it tops the list of voter
priorities for campaign 2000 far ahead of issues like taxes. Polls
reveal that 79 percent of Americans consider pledges to improve schools
to be very important influences in determining their vote for president
in 2000.

Bush’s plan would require that schools receiving Title I money, which
constitutes $7.7 billion annually and subsidizes approximately 20
percent of public school students, test their students in academic
basics each year. If schools failed to improve after three years, the
federal funds would be diverted to parents, who could use them to enroll
their kids in other public or private schools, or for tutoring.

This plan is anathema to liberals and the NEA because it promises
vouchers to students of incompetent public schools. But it is even
scarier for some conservatives because it could lead to federally
mandated testing standards. Even if the standards are initially to be
developed by the states, surely there will be minimum federal
requirements, as there always are attached to federal funds.

Conservatives believe that federal tests will inevitably lead to a
federally controlled national curriculum — one that is characterized by
politically correct indoctrination rather than academically objective
facts and principles.

It is true that Bush’s plan requires academic accountability as he
promised it would, but does it restore local autonomy as he also
pledged? I, for one, remain unconvinced.

I hope as Bush continues to unfold his policy agenda, he will place
slightly less emphasis on innovation and more on time-tested principles.
Conservatism may benefit from a marketing makeover but its tenets are
just fine. Grass-roots conservatives desperately want Dubya to
demonstrate his genuine conservatism. But as for now, they are still
patiently waiting for more proof.

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