by Richard S. Dunham George W. Bush has been trying recently to burnish his "compassionate conservative" credentials. On Apr. 25, the man who campaigned as "a different kind of Republican" implored businesses to be more generous with insurance coverage for mental illnesses. A day later, he delivered an address billed as an update on the state of compassionate conservatism. Its carefully chosen location: Silicon Valley, home of the socially libertarian, fiscally conservative swing voters the philosophy was designed to attract.
The President's return to compassionate themes had a couple of problems, however. First, Bush's rhetoric sometimes makes his party's powerful right wing seem like conservatives without compassion. Case in point: His San Jose speech was sandwiched between two political events for California GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon. In beating Bush's candidate in the Mar. 5 primary, Simon ran as a "proud conservative." Compassionate? Come on!
DEVILISH JOB. Problem No. 2: The gap between Bush's words and the Administration's less-compassionate policy prescriptions is becoming increasingly apparent. Like Bill Clinton before him, Bush is having a devil of a time balancing the demands of his party's base for extreme action with his own desire to carve a "new way" for his party. The President frequently talks like a moderate but governs in a way that pleases the party's corporate underwriters and Religious Right activists. Like Clinton, Bush often tries to have it both ways. Unlike Clinton, who was perceived to be a liberal, Bush generally succeeds.
Case in point: the issue of mental-health insurance. At an event in Albuquerque, N.M., Bush endorsed the concept of parity in insurance coverage between mental illnesses and physical illnesses. That's an extremely progressive view that runs counter to the reality of the marketplace, where businesses usually offer unlimited care for physical ailments but lifetime caps (and sometimes annual limits) on psychiatric treatment. Indeed, the insurance industry and small-business groups -- both very close allies of Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans -- are staunchly opposed to mental-health parity.
So how did Bush try to finesse the tricky situation? He endorsed the concept of mental-health parity, with a huge caveat. "It is critical...as we provide full mental-health parity, that we do not significantly run up the cost of health care," he said.
PARITY? NOT REALLY. The only trouble is full mental-health parity is guaranteed to result in either lower insurance company profits or, more likely, higher rates for all policies as insurers spread out the cost of new mental-health coverage. The probable consequence is that final legislation would either be limited to severe mental illnesses (as was the case with a bill signed by then-Governor Bush in Texas) or maintain some lifetime limits on claims -- neither truly equaling "full mental-health parity."
Bush's actions gave neither side what it wanted, but they won plaudits from both the insurance industry and mental-health activists, including ultraliberal Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), co-sponsor of the Senate legislation.
Still, in politics, perception is reality, and the public remains convinced that Bush is rooted deeply in the political center. An Apr. 29-May 1 Gallup Poll found that 64% of Americans say the President generally agrees with them on issues they care about. Overall, 27% say Bush should be more conservative, 29% want him to be less conservative, and 38% don't want him to change at all. That's perfect positioning in the middle of the political spectrum.
"DIFFERENT REALITY." The good news for Bush is that it will be difficult for Democrats to dent his compassionate-conservative armor, as much as they're bound to try. It'll be easier for the Dems to play the "compassionate" Bush against the "hard-hearted" right-wing Republicans on Capitol Hill. "Bush, at this point, is getting away with it," says Joe Lockhart, former press secretary for President Clinton. "But the important point is that the House Republicans aren't. They'll test his compassion every day."
Lockhart's comments give a good indication of how the Democrats will try to regain control of the House this November: by portraying the Hill GOP'ers as far to the right of both Middle America and the self-styled compassionate conservative in the White House. "Sure, their rhetoric is compassionate, but the record shows a starkly different reality," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said on May 2. "At the end of the day, when it comes time to govern, when the tough choices need to be made, Republicans show their true colors. They come down every time on the side of oil companies, the big polluters, and the pharmaceutical industry."
Polls show that business-bashing in the era of Enron is good politics. Among the issues on which Democrats believe House Republicans are vulnerable is tax cuts. The GOP House approved billions of dollars of retroactive tax cuts for a handful of corporations, including $254 million for Enron. The provision died in the Senate -- and was disowned by the White House. After all, how compassionate would it have been to give Enron a quarter-billion in tax cuts when workers had their retirement savings wiped out?
VOTERS' CHOICE. Republicans see the Democratic assault as desperate demagoguery from a party bereft of fresh ideas. To some degree, they have a point. Medicare and social insecurity are two staples of modern Democratic campaigns. And the Dems are exaggerating the potential impact of Bush's private investment accounts, which they call "privatization of Social Security."
The Democrats have a point, too. On all too many issues, from the environment to prescription drugs, Republicans are happy to substitute compassionate words for compassionate programs. In the end, it's up to the voters to determine which side's slogans are closer to reality. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online