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On Key Issues, Bush Sounds More Like a Centrist Democrat Than Gore

Since the mid-1980s, the Democratic Leadership Council and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, have been the intellectual engines of the centrist New Democrat movement. From welfare reform to national service to fiscal discipline, their ideas have shaped President Clinton’s agenda more than any other source. Al Gore relied heavily on DLC themes and ideas in his first bid for the presidency (back in 1988), and even today his top issues advisor, Elaine Kamarck, is a DLC alumna.

But in the past few months, presumptive Republican nominee George W. Bush appears to have been reading from the DLC playbook more closely than Gore. On a series of major issues, Bush has embraced the exact position taken by the DLC and its congressional allies, while Gore has either kept his distance or actively opposed the DLC stance. The DLC still agrees with Gore on far more issues than with Bush, but the unusual alignment isn’t just coincidence either. It’s a measure of revealing shifts in the ideological landscape for both parties.

The Bush-DLC convergence begins with health care. For months, the DLC has pushed tax credits as the best way to help the uninsured buy coverage; New Democrat stalwarts Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Rep. Calvin M. Dooley of Visalia are co-sponsoring a bipartisan tax credit plan for the uninsured. The health care proposal Bush unveiled last week--which Gore immediately denounced as inefficient and inadequate--largely follows that blueprint.

Medicare is next. Clinton and Gore want to reserve nearly $400 billion from the expected federal surplus over the next decade for Medicare while adding a prescription drug benefit and only modestly restructuring the program to control costs. The DLC and Bush both oppose providing such vast sums without more sweeping reform first. Bush has endorsed DLC-backed legislation from Breaux and Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that would transform Medicare, which now pays doctors and hospitals directly, into a program that provides seniors a fixed sum to purchase private insurance; Gore rejects the idea, saying it would lead to a “two-tier” system that provides the affluent better care.

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Likewise, DLC leaders such as Breaux and Will Marshall, the Progressive Policy Institute’s president, say it’s a mistake to transfer trillions of general revenue dollars into Social Security after 2011, as Clinton and Gore are proposing, without first restructuring the program. That’s Bush’s position too. He and the DLC both want to partially privatize Social Security by diverting part of the payroll tax into individual accounts that workers could invest in the stock market for their own retirement. Gore rejects the idea as too risky.

There’s more. The ambitious (and largely DLC-drafted) education reform package recently introduced by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) follows the same tracks as Bush’s plan by promising states more control over federal education dollars in return for tougher accountability measures. Gore, like Clinton, instead would require states to undertake specific reforms (such as intervening in failing schools), or else face a loss of federal funds. Similarly, the DLC’s resistance to including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements now places it closer to Bush than Gore on that issue too.

This doesn’t mean Bush is now a New Democrat. DLC types disagree with Bush on almost all social issues, starting with abortion and gun control. Almost all DLC Democrats oppose school vouchers, which Bush backs. And New Democrats universally oppose Bush’s proposed across-the-board cut in income taxes, arguing that the money would be better spent on public investments; indeed, the DLC wants to couple education reform with far more federal spending than Bush has proposed and would spend more in its tax credit plan for the uninsured as well.

But disagreements between Bush and an organization so intimately linked to the Clinton administration are hardly surprising. It’s more revealing that Bush and the DLC agree so much on so many major issues.

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The convergence speaks volumes about Bush’s renewed determination to steer the GOP away from the hard-line anti-government agenda that defined the party after its congressional takeover in 1994. On each of the issues where he’s come close to the DLC, Bush rejected more conservative alternatives that would have further minimized Washington’s role; while generally proposing only modest new federal spending, he’s also consistently renounced the conservative rallying cry that the best thing Washington can do is simply get out of the way. “We have been willing to cross an ideological boundary here that says markets are not enough to solve social problems,” says one senior Bush advisor.

From the other side, some critics say Gore’s reluctance to embrace DLC views on entitlements, education and trade betrays a fear of crossing Democratic interests like seniors, teachers and organized labor. That’s hard to deny, but deeper forces are also at work. One reason the DLC has converged with Bush is that the organization (like many forward-thinking conservatives) increasingly insists that the most effective way for government to pursue its goals is to rely on market forces--through such ideas as the investment accounts under Social Security and greater reliance on private insurance in Medicare. In his resistance to those ideas, Gore is reflecting the mainstream of Democratic thought, which still believes such proposals shift too much risk from government to individuals.

Even more fundamentally, Kamarck, the Gore issues advisor, argues that prosperity has rendered obsolete the need to fundamentally transform Social Security and Medicare because the budget surplus could generate enough revenue to stabilize the programs for decades. “The only reason these ideas got as far as they did is because people thought we had to do something,” she says. “We don’t have to do something anymore.” That conviction signals a broader shift: Gore seems to have concluded that good times allow him to tilt his overall agenda more toward the spending side of the balance that Clinton has struck between “reinventing” and reinvigorating government. Nervous DLC Democrats worry that public skepticism toward government hasn’t receded enough that Gore can safely propose hundreds of billions in new spending while surrendering the high ground of reform to Bush. November will tell which camp is right.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears in this space every Monday.

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See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at: https://www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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