Triangulation, or strangulation?

As Rush Limbaugh blasts away, George W. Bush insists he's not running against the GOP Congress.

Published October 6, 1999 12:00PM (EDT)

When Texas Gov. George W. Bush woke up Wednesday morning, a friendly editorial in the New York Times was there to greet him, lauding his flirtation this past week with tempered GOP-bashing.

On Sept. 30, in response to a question about Capitol Hill Republicans deferring tax-credit payments to the working poor, Bush said that the Republican-controlled Congress shouldn't "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." Then in an education speech in New York on Tuesday, Bush criticized the Republican party as being too focused on the economy and too frequently indifferent to the suffering of the American underclass.

"The Republicans in Congress  have a lot to learn from Governor Bush, who has actually had to administer social programs and may have come to the radical conclusion that it takes money to run them adequately," the Times responded.

But apparently the praise from the liberal editorial page -- not to mention complaints from GOP lawmakers -- made Bush uncomfortable. Hours later, Bush tried to backtrack. He said that the GOP's reputation for indifference to the poor doesn't reflect reality, as he had implied it did the day before, but rather is "an image of our party that we must battle ... by making sure people understand we care a lot about people."

Bush made his remarks at the Queens Job Center, one of Mayor Giuliani's welfare-to-work offices, where retrained city staff help applicants for financial assistance look for work. Bush toured the facility Wednesday morning and then listened to remarks by Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki, several job center administrators and two welfare-to-work success stories.

Flanked by Giuliani and Pataki -- who have been feuding for years -- Bush praised Republican-style welfare reform, and trumpeted a united state Republican Party. He claimed to be optimistic not only that he will win New York's GOP primary in March, but also that he might carry the state come November 2000.

Bush also tried to downplay last week's criticism of Republican plans to defer payments under the earned income tax credit (EITC).

A week ago, while he was campaigning in California, Bush blasted congressional GOP leaders for their plan. "I'm concerned for someone who is moving from near-poverty to middle class," Bush said.

The comment drew fire back in Washington, where the House Appropriations Committee was steering the relevant budget bill through the legislative process. Ranking Democrat David Obey of Wisconsin seized a wire story about Bush's remarks and interrupted the bill mark-up to read them to the committee, according to an account in the Washington Post.

Motioning toward Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, the humorless red-meat conservative who has endorsed Bush, Obey told the committee member across the aisle, "You've got to decide who you want to follow today, that Texan or Mr. Bush." The measure passed, but DeLay was later quoted fuming that, "It's obvious the governor's got a lot to learn about Congress."

"There was surprise" about Bush's comment, says a Republican official. "It certainly wasn't helpful."

But if there was any question that Bush's EITC criticism was spontaneous -- heaven forbid -- Bush removed any doubt in his education speech Tuesday when he said that the Republican party has "too often ... focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else."

In New York on Wednesday, Bush tried minimize the disagreement, explaining that he was asked "about the Congress' decision about EITC, and I said I didn't agree."

To a completely incredulous press corps -- which not only had been in attendance the day before but had both written and audio copies of his speech -- Bush insisted that all he had been saying the day before was that the GOP is too often "mischaracterized." It wasn't that Republicans are "speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, of CBO and GNP" -- as he had said Tuesday -- but rather that "oftentimes people only hear the sterile numbers of economic news that we talk about," as he said on Wednesday. It wasn't that "too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah," as he'd said Tuesday -- but rather that "oftentimes people only hear the gloom-and-doom scenario."

As of press time, it wasn't clear if the governor's staff would be providing a Bush-to-English, English-to-Bush dictionary for future speeches.

Bush's Wednesday-morning gymnastics consisted of not only some spirited backtracking, but some healthy deep knee bends as well. He insisted that he looks "forward to working in a constructive, reform-minded way with the Congress" and that he hopes "that there is a Republican speaker and a Republican majority leader." And he lavished praise on the GOP Congress, saying that the "Republican Congress -- through 'Charitable Choice' -- made it possible for us to reform welfare in a compassionate way. It was the Republican Congress that freed states to make the right decisions when it comes to welfare reform and the Republican Congress deserves great credit for that."

Bush's translation of his own remarks was obviously not enough for conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who Wednesday told listeners that Bush has "really wandered off the reservation here lately, folks."

"In my mind," Limbaugh went on, as first reported by the National Review, "no conservative running for president would make the kind of statements that he's made. No conservative running for president would leave his philosophical brothers and sisters dying on the congressional battlefield the way Bush did with that EITC thing.

"And now he's done it again with the speech at the Manhattan Institute. He's done it twice in seven or eight days' time. This obviously is a carefully crafted strategy. What it means is that solid conservatives from Tom DeLay to Dick Armey, who are doing all they can to eke out small majorities and beat back Clinton and all his Big Government schemes -- issue after issue -- end up being emasculated by Bush's comments. Who wants a Republican moderate as president?"

And as Bush's GOP rivals jumped on the front-runner for revealing the family mushy moderate DNA, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, who praised Bush at the group's weekend convention, said Bush's bid to soften the party's rougher edges threatens to "alienate the core conservatives of the Republican Party."

Whether they agree with him or not, Republican officials also seem to believe that Bush's statements were "carefully crafted."

"Bush very acutely understands tone and message," one official said. "And it certainly appears that he was sending a message to Capitol Hill and to all Republicans about the importance of tone  Bush is in the enviable position of having a national pulpit  And at first glance, he apparently did not feel that the tone of the [EITC debate] fit with his repackaging of the party's image as 'compassionate conservatives.'"

Overall, the Republican official says, Bush and the GOP Congress "are in agreement on the direction of the country, and I think they agree on a majority of things. The problem is that on the Hill we're locked into a chessboard that's in play, while Bush has the enviable position of being able to maneuver as he wants."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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George W. Bush Republican Party Tom Delay