President Clinton mocked Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign mantra of "compassionate conservatism" Wednesday, suggesting that the phrase adopted by the GOP presidential front-runner actually denotes a lack of caring.
Asked for a response, Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker asked: "What part does he not understand: 'compassionate' or 'conservative'?"
Wading into the rapidly unfolding campaign to succeed him, Clinton also hailed Vice President Al Gore for his blizzard of policy pronouncements and urged every other candidate to follow suit--not only Bush but, by inference, Gore's Democratic challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who has studiously avoided laying out specific policy goals.
"You probably ought to tell people what you'd do if you get the job--and then you're more likely to do it," Clinton said.
His impromptu remarks preceded a policy address here to the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist organization he once chaired.
The president's jibe at Bush was evidently inspired by the remarks of California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who said, "Some Republicans think if you put a nice word in front of a mean word, you can fool people."
"What a travesty it would be if the winner of the next election is the heir to 'voodoo economics,' " he added, in a reference to former President Bush, who once denigrated then-candidate Ronald Reagan's economic policies by that memorable phrase.
Then Clinton spoke: "I shouldn't do this, because it's not really presidential, but I'm going to do it anyway. . . . This 'compassionate conservatism' has a great ring to it, you know? It sounds so good. And I've really worked hard to try to figure out what it means.
"I made an honest effort, and near as I can tell, here's what it means: It means, 'I like you. I do. And I would like to be for the patients' bill of rights and I'd like to be for closing the gun show loophole, and I'd like not to squander the surplus and, you know, save Social Security and Medicare for the next generation. I'd like to raise the minimum wage. I'd like to do these things. But I just can't, and I feel terrible about it.' "
As the rolling laughter dissipated in the audience of about 200 like-minded Democrats, Clinton said with a smile:
"Oh, that will come back to haunt me."
Bush spokeswoman Tucker noted that Bush has already signed into law in Texas bills addressing issues Clinton supports nationally: "Gov. Bush not only supports protections for patients and providers, he has signed them into law. Gov. Bush not only supports tough penalties for gun-related crimes, he has signed them into law. Gov. Bush not only supports ending social promotion in schools, he has signed it into law."
The Bush campaign seemed surprised by Clinton's remarks.
"It's amazing that the incumbent president is taking time out of his busy schedule to talk about a candidate who isn't even the Republican nominee," Tucker said.