George W. Bush is now a credible candidate for the White House. He has grown during the campaign. He has demonstrated that he has a vision for America. Yet he remains far from ideal. If Bush wants to win American hearts, he needs to transform himself from politician to leader. He needs to:
1. Challenge corporate welfare. On a cynical political level, taking on corporate pork would neutralize claims by Camp Gore that Bush is in the pockets of corporate interests and the rich. (Like Al Gore isn't. He just lives in a farm once owned by Occidental Petroleum head Armand Hammer and surrounds himself with advisers who have lobbied for big drug companies.)
Better yet, targeting corporate welfare would show that Bush is ready to go after the least justifiable of all federal spending. Many conservatives fear that Bush ... like his Pops ... is a me-too Republican, who would allow government to expand because it's the easiest course. If Bush were to target corporate payoffs, he would show that he will go after unnecessary spending and give himself the moral authority to target other wasteful programs.
(Bush League couldn't name a single program Bush would cut; an aide said Bush proposes a commission, like the base-closing commission, to eliminate "pork-barrel spending," not corporate welfare. Shame, shame, shame.)
2. Learn to articulate his tax cut. Tuesday night's debate provided a sad moment when a "middle-class, 34-year-old person with no dependents" asked both candidates how their tax proposals would affect her. Bush should have hit that question out of the ballpark, by giving a concrete number, such as telling her that if she makes $34,000, his plan would reduce her taxes by some 8 percent.
That's a sharp contrast from Plan Gore, which would provide no middle-class tax relief unless workers do certain things ... like care for a parent.
3. Get real on local control. Bush sends out a mixed message on how he would fix the public schools. On the one hand, he advocates phonics as the superior method of teaching reading. Then he says he believes in local control of public schools, as if local control is the antidote to their ills.
Of course, local control is important, but Bush must know that it won't do much for kids if the federal education bureaucracy keeps touting trendy teaching methods that eschew basics and don't work. A case in point would be the U.S. Department of Education's 1999 endorsement of 10 "exemplary" or "promising" math programs, including a math series that discourages teachers from giving lessons with "predetermined numerical results." (Translation: no right answers.)
Bush has hit Gore on the vice president's "fuzzy math" in terms of his budget proposals. Dubya also ought to hit Gore for the administration's endorsement of "fuzzy math" in textbooks. A true reformer has to promise to battle this dumb-down mentality, not just chant bromides about local decision-making.
One other thing: If Bush wants to appear consistent, he should not push character education in public schools. Not just because he's for local control, but also because he says he trusts parents ... not government schools ... to teach values.
4. Challenge the notion that all seniors are entitled to more medical benefits. To his credit, Bush wants to provide a prescription drug benefit to needy seniors first, then push for reforms that might provide more benefits for the middle class. Gore, for all his talk about not cutting taxes for the rich, wants to give new benefits even to rich seniors who don't need it. Bush has his priorities straight here.
Figure Bush has failed to play up this difference because he too wants the votes of seniors in the pivotal state of Florida. He will win those votes at a cost. By not speaking more forcefully on the issue, Bush may fail to woo younger voters, as well as seniors who don't think they're entitled to extras they don't need.
5. Find a good intellectual cause ... like American history. Bush is famous for his aversion to reading policy papers. He frowns on intellectualism as if it were broccoli.
Bush should not allow his personal tastes to signal to America's youth that there is something cute about not reading weighty tomes. He was right to push for basics. Now he should embrace the higher elements of learning. Instead of sneering at academics, let him embrace history.