PHILADELPHIA -- One of the largely overlooked but most important applause lines in George W. Bush's remarkable acceptance speech last Thursday night came as an invigorating surprise to conservative doubters about the governor of Texas: "No one in America should have to pay a third of their income to the federal government."
Not even Ronald Reagan ever put an upper limit on what payment Uncle Sam demands of his citizens. It puts the lie to instant news analysts who complained that Bush was stealing from Bill Clinton's playbook. Tax limits are as foreign to Clinton as the other chief policy proposals in Bush's speech: Social Security private investment accounts, estate tax repeal, protection for "the unborn." This was a conservative address for the nation's conservative party.
What made the speech -- and the entire four-day convention -- remarkable was that conservative doctrine was covered with a sweetly centrist facade. Thus, stern discipline imposed on the delegates by Bush's agents here had a purpose beyond avoiding unpleasant floor fights.
Tax limitations were not needed to solidify the party's conservative base as Bob Dole felt constrained to do with his unenthusiastic advocacy of a tax cut in 1996. This time Bush pressed a conservative agenda, because he believes in it. Nor is he retreating in the face of the statist propaganda that denies a return of the burgeoning surplus to citizens who have financed it with excessive taxation.
With some 1,900 of the 2,066 delegates elected in order to nominate Bush, most would have cheered anything he said. But conservative activists who have not been fans of the Bush family were energized. When so brutally frank a voice on the right as Paul Weyrich gave his stamp of approval on Bush's climactic speech of the "New Republican" convention, it means that George W. did it: achieving the most successful GOP gathering of the 10 I have covered.
Spokesmen for Vice President Al Gore on Friday morning publicly compared the Bush speech's level of banality with Warren Harding's in 1920. But privately, they are deeply concerned. Their hope that this relatively inexperienced governor would flop in delivering the most important speech of his life has been unrealized, as was their dream of Republicans turning on each other in Philadelphia.
Still, Gore Democrats consider themselves fortunate that Bush did not deliver the substance-free acceptance speech they expected (and he could have gotten away with). To the vice president's skilled political operatives, Bush has committed a serious mistake in opening himself and his party for attack.
But consider Rep. Paul Ryan, whose Kenosha-Racine district in Wisconsin long was represented by Democrat Les Aspin. Ryan is a tax-cutting supply-sider, and he left the convention city Friday in a state of euphoria. "That sounded more like Reagan than Bush," Ryan told me in describing the nominee's speech.
Is sounding that way really helpful to the GOP in a blue-collar district that Democratic presidential candidates have carried with double-digit margins for the past three elections, starting with Michael Dukakis in 1988? Ryan's own polls show Bush running 14 points ahead of Gore and, what's more important, labor union members strongly supporting Bush's Social Security private investment plan (what Gore calls "privatization").
Bush and his managers know they await a withering attack by the Democratic convention in Los Angeles next week on Social Security, as well as tax cuts and abortion restrictions. They see the polls reflecting an even race by Labor Day, to be followed by hand-to-hand combat.
Such a forecast was the basis for Bush's poignant assessment as he concluded his speech last Thursday night in predicting the Gore campaign's course: "Their attacks will be relentless, but they will be answered. We are facing something familiar, but they are facing something new."
That reassured Republicans who feared that the saccharine taste of the convention's first two nights foretold a campaign turning the other cheek. But the "something new" referred to more than just a counter-puncher. George W. Bush was suggesting that he is the first Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan who can take bold conservative positions without terrifying America. If he is correct, he will win.