George W. Looks in the Mirror — and Sees Bill

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The secret to much of Bill Clinton’s campaign success was his ability to hijack his enemies’ most popular policies; now George W. Bush may be looking to hijack Clinton’s methods. The GOP presidential front-runner, sometimes accused of standing for nothing in particular, set out his education policy in a speech to be delivered in Los Angeles Thursday. It contained some classic difference-splitting between the conservative clamor for school vouchers and the Clintonesque tying of federal funding to performance improvements in public schools, and even paired such liberal mainstays as the Head Start program with the faith-based charities favored by the right. "The speech follows the pattern of everything we’ve seen Bush do so far," says TIME Washington correspondent James Carney. "He takes a dash of libertarian conservatism, mixes it with genetically altered liberalism and comes out with ‘compassionate conservatism.’ He’s trying to define himself, much as Clinton did, as different to the traditional positions of both parties."

On an issue that tops the public agenda — and on which Democrats have traditionally enjoyed more favorable ratings — Bush has creatively traversed both the school-voucher camp and liberal touchstones such as Head Start. Critics may point out that the $1,500 a year he advocates offering to parents who want to opt out of public schools that fall short of state testing standards three years in a row wouldn’t be enough to pay for private school, and that his proposal to transfer Head Start to the control of the Department of Education seems to fly in the face of Republican efforts to disband that agency, but an election policy speech is less about minutiae than about demeanor. "Policy mavens may take issue with a lot of what he’s proposing, but the speech positions him as an innovator," says Carney. "It also shows that he’s not particularly concerned about attacks from the right in the primaries. This is aimed at swing voters in the presidential election." And, unfortunately for Al Gore, the ’92 campaign proved that it’s a lot easier to march under the flag of policy innovator when you’re not the incumbent.