Voters may balk at Bush's try to ride `third way' wave

July 18, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

POLITICS in much of the Western world has been redefined by a movement called the "third way." In the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and now Israel, candidates espousing an approach that is just to the right of center have swept into office.

In Baltimore this past week, the group that started this movement, the Democratic Leadership Council, cheered its biggest success story, President Clinton.

The group had much to celebrate -- and much to worry about.

The DLC concluded in the conservative Reagan years of the 1980s that hard-line liberals had wandered too far left of the vast majority of Americans.

The DLC called for a return to centrist politics, seeking practical solutions regardless of whether the ideas came from conservatives or liberals.

Mr. Clinton is a master of this strategy. He has repeatedly appropriated Republican proposals, embraced them, put a human spin on them and sold them to the public and a reluctant Congress.

He has followed the DLC script: Combine progressive ideas, mainstream values and something very un-Democratic -- fiscal responsibility.

State and local officials, who dominate the DLC, know the validity of this approach. They grapple with balanced budgets and nuts-and-bolts people dilemmas every day. It's answers that count, not adhering to a rigid ideology.

But in Washington, the holy wars between purists persist. The latest incarnation is Republicans' astoundingly dumb notion of giving away the nation's projected 10-year surplus through tax cuts -- before fixing Medicare or eliminating the national debt.

They're not going to win this fight. Public sentiment is heavily against them. The president, once more, will emerge victorious. His approach is decidedly third way, stressing old-fashioned fiscal responsibility -- something we used to associate with Republicans, not Democrats.

Troubled campaign

Vice President Al Gore is also a DLC adherent, and his campaign for the presidency will draw heavily on the DLC principle of innovative problem-solving.

That should put Mr. Gore on the road to the White House. Instead, Mr. Gore is troubled.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush is "pulling a Clinton" on the president. He is playing the DLC's centrist game, but from the Republican right.

Mr. Bush's version of third way politics is "compassionate conservatism" -- a way of reshaping conservatism to face current social and political challenges. He came into the governor's office in Austin as a conservative, but realized that ideology didn't count as much as workable answers.

Mr. Bush has charisma, good looks, a famous name and a likable, aw-shucks personality. That frightens the DLC crowd, and for good reason.

Mr. Bush is mouthing all the right platitudes. Like his dad, he's promising a kinder, gentler form of Republicanism.

So far, the Bush candidacy has soared. The image is great. But it has been all style so far. As Walter Mondale asked an opponent in a previous presidential campaign: "Where's the beef?"

The president took his first swing at Mr. Bush at the DLC gathering in Baltimore. Yes, the president said, Mr. Bush may sympathize with the problems of the underclass, but what does the candidate really stand for? He may feel our pain, Mr. Clinton indicated, but will he do anything as president to stop the hurt?

Democrats will keep raising the "all glitz, no substance" charge over the next 16 months. At some point, Mr. Bush must do more than pat minority children on their heads in carefully designed "photo opportunities." He'll have to make detailed policy pronouncements. That will tell us how compassionate this conservative really is.

Sauerbrey debacle

A conservative's conversion to third way politics isn't easy. Ask Maryland GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey. Last year, she tried to persuade centrist voters that she cared about the plight of the poor and minorities by making trips to urban neighborhoods.

It wasn't enough: Her record as a legislator told a different story. Voters didn't buy the "new look" Sauerbrey. Yes, she seemed sincere in liking children and trying to moderate some positions, but skeptical voters need more proof of a transformation.

That could be Mr. Bush's biggest hurdle. Despite his soothing words and charisma, he's a very conservative fellow in a time when the nation's voters may not want to abandon the centrist politics that have brought Americans such unparalleled prosperity.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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