The anti-Houston

August 30, 2004

IN DESIGNING the convention at which he will be nominated for re-election this week, President Bush has once again ripped a page from his father's playbook -- and adopted an opposite strategy.

The first President Bush, whose kinder, gentler tone was under challenge from the GOP right, surrendered his renomination convention in Houston to speakers whose harsh "family values" rhetoric came off as intolerant and mean-spirited. The hate-a-thon is believed to have contributed mightily to the elder Bush's defeat.

None of that for the current president. He's made plenty of sops to right-wingers on the party platform. But for those folks out there in television land, Mr. Bush will be appearing in his "compassionate conservative" mode. And his main convention speakers -- John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudolph Giuliani; nondogmatic types, each with his own peculiar following -- were selected for their appeal to moderates.

The "anti-Houston," one GOP operative dubbed the Big Apple gathering.

Of course, the principal mission will be to buttress Mr. Bush's claim to be the candidate best suited to lead the war on terror; it's no accident the Republicans are convening today in New York City for the first time in the GOP's long history.

But the president knows the disastrous war in Iraq and the shaky economy have made his contest with Democrat John Kerry so close, he also needs to raise the comfort level with his domestic policies.

To win the clear mandate denied him in 2000, Mr. Bush needs to embrace the approach of the undoctrinaire middle, which cares about fairness and opportunity and the quality of life as well as safety.

The compassionate conservative Mr. Bush hasn't been much in evidence lately.

His education bill to "end the soft bigotry of expectations" was enacted, but hasn't been backed with enough funds to cover costs.

He won the biggest tax cuts in history, but the gap between rich and poor is widening, with single-parent families slipping increasingly below the poverty line.

He persuaded the Republican Congress to add a drug benefit to Medicare, but he's done little to reduce the cost of health care, boosting the ranks of the uninsured.

He has not delivered on his promises of 2000 to "confront the hard issues," including retirement security, "before the challenges of our time become crises for our children."

Granted, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks radically altered the landscape in America. The hyper-level of security on display in New York this week is testimony enough to that. But if this is to be a long-term condition, a president can't ignore other vital aspects of life.

Moderates, in particular, want more attention to the environment, to energy alternatives, to civil liberties, and to bringing the budget back into some kind of balance.

Mr. Bush has the opportunity to chart a second term that truly reflects his original lofty goals to be "bold enough to seize the opportunities of this new century," yet compassionate enough to "never forget the old, unfinished struggle for human dignity."

If that's what he promises again, though, he should be held to it.

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