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Bush Campaign Uses Old Theme: ‘Compassionate Conservativism’

By Elisabeth Bumiller

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

President Bush is running for re-election as a “compassionate conservative” who has sought to bring a new Republican approach to poverty and other social ills. Indeed, his campaign Web site is lush with a “compassion photo gallery” showing him reading to schoolchildren, helping out at a soup kitchen and visiting an AIDS treatment center in Africa.

But supporters, some administration officials among them, acknowledge that Bush’s “compassionate conservative” agenda has fallen so short of its ambitious goals, in some cases undercut by pressure from his conservative backers, that they fear he will be politically vulnerable on the issue in 2004.

At the same time, some religious supporters of Bush said they feel betrayed by promises he made as a candidate and now, they maintain, has broken as president.

“After three years, he’s failed the test,” said one prominent early supporter, the Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of Call to Renewal, a network of churches that fights poverty.

Wallis said Bush had told him as president-elect that “I don’t understand how poor people think,” and appealed to him for help by calling himself “‘a white Republican guy who doesn’t get it, but I’d like to.”’ Now “his policy has not come even close to matching his words.”

Joshua B. Bolten, White House budget director and formerly Bush’s chief domestic policy adviser, responded in an interview last week by saying that “I think that is one of the most unfair criticisms that has been leveled against the president.”

At issue is Bush’s willingness to demand financing from Congress on his signature “compassionate conservative” issues, like education reform and AIDS, with the same energy he has fought for tax cuts and the Iraq war. Critics say the pattern has been consistent: The president, in eloquent speeches that make headlines, calls for millions and sometimes billions of dollars for new initiatives, then fails to follow through and push hard for the programs on Capitol Hill.

On one central piece of such legislation, the so-called faith-based bill to help religious charities, Bush, after two years of objections from Democrats, retreated this spring and agreed to strip the bill of provisions specifically related to religious groups. Instead, it now largely offers tax incentives to encourage giving to charities of all kinds.

On a proposal this summer to extend a $400-a-child tax credit to low-income families, Bush at first demanded that Congress appropriate the money, then backed off in the face of furious opposition from his conservative allies in the House, led by the majority leader, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. The issue is now bottled up in a dispute between the House and the more moderate Senate, and several Republican senators have called on Bush to step in and break the impasse.

Financing for another favorite item on Bush’s “compassion” agenda, the national volunteer program called AmeriCorps, faltered this summer under similar opposition from DeLay. Although Bush had forcefully called for expanding that Clinton-era program in his 2002 State of the Union address, he was largely silent last month in the face of objections to a $100 million emergency infusion that it needed to maintain its current level of operations. The House rejected that financing, leaving AmeriCorps with an uncertain future.

“Even the president is not omnipotent,” Bolten said. “Would that he were. He often says that life would be a lot easier if it were a dictatorship. But it’s not, and he’s glad it’s a democracy.”