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Austin's Power

George W strode into town last week searching for the Republican center while the party's far right faltered. But can he stay the course so early in the game?

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By now, you've long since digested what George W. Bush had to say about his own party's recent past during his speech last week to the Manhattan Institute. Pretty interesting stuff; the taker of the cake was surely the bit about the GOP's too often depicting America as "slouching toward Gomorrah." That's Robert Bork's line, of course, but the theme has also been the stock-in-trade of William Bennett, who was planted right there at one of the front tables. A Fourth Estate friend seated at Bennett's table reports that he smiled gently at the remark, his outrage, if not dead, at least in a state of cryogenic repose, not soon to be roused.

A Republican's tossing dung at his fellow elephants deserves attention. But far more remarkable than what Bush said -- and far more indicative of his potential strength -- was what he didn't say. In a 25-minute speech on education policy before, remember, the conservative Manhattan Institute, he did not -- not even once -- utter the word vouchers. He talked about some programs that sounded voucherlike, such as letting low-income parents put around $1,500 in Title I money toward private-school tuition; even then, he said the money could also go to tutoring and sending children to a different public school. But the V-word didn't cross his lips.

Two more things: He didn't call for the abolition of the Department of Education, which, if vouchers have been item No. 1 on the GOP education agenda, has been a razor-close second. And he did not attack teachers' unions. Remember Bob Dole at the 1996 GOP convention? "And to the teachers' unions," Bob thundered, "I say, when I am president, I will disregard your political power . . ." Not for Bush. He even tossed in -- no doubt at the behest of his local mandarinate -- a clever passing reference to "the great Albert Shanker," who was, what with the way he stood up to the rabble-rousers of '68, the sort of union man whom conservatives could admire.

For these and other clearly intentional omissions, Bush's was a startling speech. Of a piece, to be sure, with his two parries against the right in Washington the previous week, when he refused to toss red meat in the direction of the Christian Coalition and when he criticized congressional Republicans -- and in particular fellow Texan Tom DeLay -- for their callousness in trying to spread the earned-income-tax-credit payments to poor people out over time (instead of giving them the money in a lump sum).

This is great politics, and smart P.R. But if people like me approve, then somebody, somewhere, surely disapproves. How long can Bush bash the right?

Lately, I've been thinking back on a certain weekend I passed in Washington during Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign at a Rainbow Coalition convention. It was a Saturday morning, and Clinton was coming to speak. The day before, the Washington Post had run a piece about a split within the Clinton camp over whether the candidate should praise Jesse Jackson or bury him. Word of the argument was clearly leaked by the bury-him camp, which wanted to alert the press to the idea that Clinton (New Democrat) would not coddle the mischief-making preacher as had Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Sure enough, that Saturday, toward the end of a theretofore unremarkable speech, Clinton lit into his famous reproval of Sister Souljah, who had said after the Los Angeles riots that maybe black people should take a week to kill white people and whose participation in some sort of youth panel at the Rainbow convention gave Clinton license to lecture Jackson on abetting the purveyors of hatred. It's hard to imagine it now, but back then, the Washington Establishment loved Clinton, was sick of Jackson, and was thrilled to see Bill give Jesse what-for.

And here we are: Robert Bork is Bush's Sister Souljah. The similarities are striking. There is, though, one big difference. Clinton delivered his I'm Over the Rainbow speech on June 13, 1992 -- after the primaries, after he was the nominee, after Jackson and the rest of the left had no mathematical option before them other than to back Clinton. Bush, however, is doing his act more than three months before a single vote is to be cast. Of course, it may well be that the right, even at this early stage, already has no option other than Bush. That's the sort of inevitability $55 million in the bank can buy a candidate. But this is about more than money.

People have been talking and writing about the end of ideology for a decade now. First in global and historical terms: capitalism's victory over socialism. In more recent, post-USSR years, the conversation has been about degrees of ideological commitment within capitalism. Along came Clinton, to declare the end of welfare-state liberalism, and to leave welfare reform -- rather than, say, universal health-care coverage or some other more obviously liberal initiative -- as his chief domestic legacy. The era of old-style liberalism, which had held sway in America since the New Deal and, in its more fragrant form, since the sixties, ended during the Clinton presidency.

We know where that left liberalism. But the more interesting question is, where did it leave conservatism? David Brooks, writing not long ago in The Weekly Standard, keenly observed that the style of conservatism that incubated the Gingrich revolution actually depended on the era of liberal dominance and, from the sixties forward, developed "a confrontationalist mentality: Polarize the debate, attack the liberal elites." But now that the old liberal elites don't run things (save humanities departments and the Brooklyn Museum), polarization becomes a tougher sell.

And so the end of the old liberalism perforce ushers in the end of the old conservatism. It hasn't died quite yet. Congressional Republicans are still insisting on running their little skiff straight into the rocks, having bungled budget negotiations so badly that they're now left with either dipping into Social Security money or cutting federal programs by amounts even some of their committee chairmen can't abide. Poor, dumb Steve Forbes (ah, to embrace the Christian Coalition precisely when it's running out of gas!) and poor, irrelevant Gary Bauer can cry all night about Bush's selling their party out, but they're fighting the last war.

Bush is fighting the next one. He can't go around looking for too much trouble with conservatives -- hence his cowardly refusal to shoo Pat Buchanan out of the party -- and of course at some point they'll have a chance to confront him, make him accede to something or other. But it's not likely they can stop Bush, or make him change very much. There's a word for a candidate like that, or three words: tough to beat.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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