Giving Bush a pass

August 01, 1999|By DeWayne Wickham

WHEN THE Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition opens its annual conference this week, Texas Gov. George W. Bush won't be there. The front-runner for the Republican Party's presidential nomination wasn't invited.

That's a serious mistake.

Mr. Jackson says he wants to use the Chicago gathering to help shape the debate for the presidential campaign. Apparently the only candidates he seeks to influence are Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, both Democrats.

Such a strategy may prove to be a futile effort if the lead Mr. Bush now has in the polls holds. Mr. Bush would beat both men by a wide margin if the election were held now, according to a recent Dallas Morning News/Belo Poll.

Mr. Bush enjoys this big lead even though 75 percent of the poll's respondents said they don't have a clue about where he stands on most issues. That's not surprising. When it comes to talking issues, Mr. Bush has remained largely silent or intentionally vague. If Democrats want to chip away at his lead, they have to smoke him out.

Mr. Jackson could have led that effort -- or spotlighted Mr. Bush's stealth campaign -- by extending him an invitation to address the high-profile conference.

By not doing so, he allows the presumptive GOP nominee to go largely unchallenged in painting himself as a "compassionate conservative."

Phony compassion

His compassion is portrayed in news pictures of him touring inner-city self-help programs. During these stops, Mr. Bush usually says nothing of substance about how he would use the presidency to combat social problems.

During a well-staged event at an Indianapolis church recently, Mr. Bush announced that if elected, he would push for passage of $8 billion in tax incentives to rally "little armies of compassion" to combat the nation's gnawing social problems.

"In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives," Mr. Bush said.

Will that be his response to corporations seeking subsidies and federal bailouts or just to people struggling to cope with problems like homelessness, drug addiction and poor public schools?

Is Mr. Bush talking about the problems of Social Security recipients or just those who are on welfare? These are questions that Mr. Jackson and his followers could have put to him.

As the soon-to-be leader of the Republican Party, Mr. Bush also could have been pressed to take a position on Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist's singing of "Dixie" -- the marching song of Confederate troops -- at a recent Virginia judicial retreat.

Does Mr. Bush approve of the GOP appointee to the high court leading others in singing the anthem of the traitors who sought to tear apart this nation? Does he approve of the flying of their battle flag over the South Carolina capital?

Mr. Bush could have faced such questions at the PUSH conference. But, in effect, Mr. Jackson has given Mr. Bush a pass. That's too bad.

In private, Mr. Bush apparently has no problem explaining his conservative views. Ward Connerly, the Pied Piper of the anti-affirmative action movement, endorsed Mr. Bush's presidential campaign after the two men had a closed-door meeting to discuss the Texas governor's position on affirmative action.

Like his father, who won the presidency in 1988 by talking in a murky way of creating "a kinder, gentler nation" with a surge of volunteerism that he labeled "a thousand points of light," Mr. Bush panders to poor and disadvantaged people.

While he acknowledges their pain, he wants churches and charities, not the government he seeks to lead, to spearhead efforts to solve their problems.

By not including Mr. Bush on his list of invitees, Mr. Jackson missed a great opportunity to slowdown -- or even derail -- the leading Republican candidate's run for the White House.

More importantly, he missed a chance to shape the debate in a presidential election that by all early indications looks like a one-man race.

DeWayne Wickham, a former Sun reporter, is a columnist for USA Today and the Gannett News Service.

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