Gore and Bush offer voters some differences

June 23, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

WASHINGTON -- At times during their high-octane campaign swings last week, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush sounded as if they had swapped speech writers. The Texas Republican read from the Democratic hymnal when he insisted: "The purpose of prosperity is to make sure that people aren't left out." And the vice president practically recited one of Mr. Bush's signature lines when he declared that America must be measured "not merely [by] the value of our possessions but the values we possess." The only thing missing was the drawl.

There were enough echoing chords to lead one reporter trailing the veep to lament, "I guess it really doesn't matter which campaign I cover; it looks like they are going to be the same."

A gulf between positions

Not so fast. Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore think alike in some important ways, and those similarities point to hopeful trends in U.S. politics. But the real story of their dueling appearances was how great a distance still separates a "new Democrat" like Mr. Gore from a "compassionate conservative" like Mr. Bush -- and how eager both are to explore that gulf.

Forget the exhausting eight-month general election campaign between President Clinton and GOP nominee Bob Dole in 1996; Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are embarking on what could be a nearly 18-month competition that will excavate every difference between them. And there are plenty.

First the similarities. In his own way, each man embodies the ideological chastening of his party. The Clinton-Gore new Democrat appeal is an explicit response to the voter rejection of traditional liberalism after the 1960s. Mr. Bush's compassionate conservatism is an accommodation to the voter recoil from "revolutionary" Republican conservatism after 1994. Since each of these hybrid appeals borrows themes usually associated with the other party, it's no surprise the two candidates end up in the same place on some issues.

Thinking alike

In foreign policy, both are free-trading internationalists. On domestic issues, their overlap is concentrated in two broad areas.

One is on the importance of infusing public policy with such traditional values as rewarding work and demanding personal responsibility. After Mr. Clinton's breakthrough formulation from 1992, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore believe that social policy should be built on establishing a link between opportunity and responsibility.

That leads them to espouse demanding work from welfare recipients and requiring students to pass tests for promotion from grade to grade -- and at the same time providing extra help for those who don't. Both want to boost families "who work hard and play by the rules" -- Mr. Gore by raising the minimum wage, Mr. Bush by targeting them for tax breaks.

In their second big area of convergence, both are open to new ways for government to pursue its goals. Each has been influenced by the neo-progressive reform ideas gaining strength in both parties. Both want to personalize the delivery of aid to the needy by shifting more control to religiously based charities and other local groups. And they share an interest in challenging public bureaucracies by exposing them to greater competition -- the way charter schools are meant to spur improvement in other public schools.

But Mr. Bush would take that competition idea much further than Mr. Gore, embracing ideas anathema to Democrats, such as vouchers for private schools. That contrast points toward a division could headline a Bush-Gore election: Even if the distance between them is narrowing about how the government should pursue its goals, they still diverge about what goals the government should pursue, especially at the federal level.

For all his interest in "reinventing" government, Mr. Gore still envisions an activist Washington that looks to do more things (albeit sometimes in new ways). His announcement speech last week proposed federal initiatives to reduce class sizes in all grades through high school, provide universal preschool, hire more police, control suburban sprawl and (although he did not say how) extend health insurance to some of the 43 million Americans now without it. That may not add up to the Great Society, but it's a much bolder agenda for federal action than Mr. Clinton dared to run on in 1996.

On all of these questions, Mr. Bush's instincts point in the opposite direction. "Government should do a few things and do them well," he insisted last week. Asked at one campaign stop what his top two priorities would be as president, he quickly answered: cutting marginal tax rates and increasing defense spending.

In every speech, he promised to "reduce the regulations that strangle enterprise," to shift more control of education programs to the states and to partially privatize Social Security by diverting a portion of the payroll tax into individual investment accounts. Not much creeping moderation there.

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