Our Second Education President

Lucas Morel

October 1, 1999

It’s over. While there’s still four months to go before the bellwether primaries and caucuses take place, George W. Bush has become the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party. “Nothing succeeds like success,” and this election cycle the polls have shown that both Republican officeholders and the rank and file want to back a proven winner early in the presidential contest.

The Texas Governor leads all GOP contenders in money raised by about the same astonishing margin as his poll figures distance him from the field. With Quayle bowing out for lack of funds, and Liddy Dole stagnating in funds raised and plateauing in public appeal, only a strong showing by Arizona Senator John McCain at New Hampshire’s February 1st primary (he’s skipping the January 31st Iowa caucus) poses any threat to the Bush juggernaut.

Now what? It’s time to take stock of what the governor proposes for his presidency, and what opportunities exist for him to put his stamp on American national politics.

“Compassionate conservatism,” a not too distant cousin of his father’s “kinder, gentler America,” stands as the theme of his campaign. He understands that the Grand Old Party has an image problem, especially with racial minorities, women, and the poor. And so he’s trying to put a nicer face on the Republican Party. But merging sentiment with principle could undermine principle over the long haul, especially given the Beltway’s “same old, same old” mentality. Education, at the top of the electorate’s priority list for Election 2000 (and therefore the presidential candidates’), could be the test of where Bush’s conservatism will take him.

Before the Latino Business Association, Bush remarked, “Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less: the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Well put. His education reforms, which aim to “close the achievement gap” between minorities and whites, includes transferring the Head Start program from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education and making all federal education programs more accountable for improving basic reading, math, science, and social studies.

Including Title I programs, the federal government spends almost $13 billion annually on education—dollars Bush says “will no longer follow failure.” Schools receiving Title I funds that do not improve test scores will first be warned and eventually defunded if they do not turn things around. States would then receive these lost funds and give them to the parents of the failing students to put towards tutoring or schools of their choice, public or private.

Bush added that the Department of Education did not need to be abolished, just “made more effective.” But as the governor well knows, education is primarily a state and local responsibility. And most conservatives see little if any constitutional justification for federal involvement with education. Campaigning as if he wants to become governor of the United States, and not its president, could Bush’s compassion already be winning out over his conservative principles?

The latest polls show Bush ahead of Vice President Al Gore and former N.J. Senator Bill Bradley in head-to-head contests. This early indication of Americans’ preference will be tested, though, when those masters of interest-group politics, the Democratic Party, begin claiming that the Republican Governor would neglect, ignore, and otherwise disinherit this or that subgroup of the American populace. At which point, Bush will need to explain why the next president should be a Republican and not a Democrat. Not being Clinton will not be enough for either party’s nominee.

During the last presidential campaign, Senator Bob Dole missed an opportunity to explain that only one change was needed at the ballot box—a Republican for president. With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate after the mid-term elections of 1994, and the popularity of the Contract with America, all that remained two years later was for a Republican to become president to carry out the nation’s wishes. Dole refused to make this pitch for the Grand Old Party. And so a plurality of the country re-elected Clinton, and the Contract with America fizzled in the face of a Democrat’s vetoes and a Republican Congress too weak to override them.

A few years later, the Republicans have little to show for their time at the reins of the most powerful legislature on earth. Painted by the media as the “Do-Nothing” Congress, they stand in sore need of leadership. Bush has an opportunity to set a principled Republican agenda for the nation. But not if he secures the presidential nomination by proposing federal reforms that would be more appropriate at the state level. To offer the nation a second Bush presidency, the governor should tout his principles on an equal basis with his sentiments. That would be truly educational.

Lucas Morel teaches politics at Washington and Lee University and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.