He began the presidential campaign calling himself a compassionate conservative, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush may be inventing a different species of politician: a tax-cut-and-spend Republican.
So far this week, Bush has proposed new spending that would total about $46 billion over five years, most of it for health care. Wednesday, he recommended a $4.3 billion program, mostly to expand community health services in remote and urban areas.
Earlier, he called for $13 billion in new education spending, a defense plan that requires at least $25 billion in new spending -- perhaps more. And he's not through. Aides say Bush will use the coming months to outline more of his domestic policy views and, likely, additional spending for health care and other problems.
Given Bush's pledge to push for a huge tax cut if he becomes president, the question now is, how will he pay for it all?
Officials in his campaign say the growing economy will produce surpluses that will more than cover the tax cuts and any proposed spending increases. ''All our proposals, both on the tax side and the (spending) side, are in the context of a balanced budget,'' said campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Democrats, led by Vice President Al Gore, disagree. They say Bush has overestimated the projected surplus, significantly underestimated the size of his tax cut, has not factored into his fiscal equation plans to privatize part of the Social Security system and has yet to outline a single significant cut in current spending.
Gore charged Wednesday that Bush has opened up a ''Texas-sized canyon'' with his tax cut and spending plans and said the choice in November is ''will we jeopardize our prosperity or keep it going?''
Bush's domestic policy agenda represents an effort to reposition the GOP and appeal to swing voters. His call for increased spending on education and health care marks a decisive turn in a party that took control of Congress in 1994 with an anti-Washington, anti-government rallying cry.
But his effort to couple new spending with a big tax cut that was designed in part to mollify the conservative wing of his party during last winter's primaries has left him vulnerable to charges that his plans threaten the projected budget surpluses and, with the best economy in U.S. history.
Elaine Kamarck, Gore's domestic policy adviser, said Wednesday that the campaign has begun to open up a major fault line between the two nominees on the issue of fiscal management. ''If you take the tax cut and any Social Security privatization scheme, it becomes incomprehensible how he would do any of the things he does,'' she said.
It was not so long ago that Republicans attacked their opponents as ''tax-and-spend Democrats.'' Now Democrats, who have held the White House as the economy has helped fuel the biggest surpluses in decades, see a chance to turn the tables on Republicans. Gore hopes to cast himself as the guardian of fiscal discipline in contrast to a profligate Republican opponent.
The Congressional Budget Office has projected the surpluses under several scenarios. Under one, which assumes the discretionary spending growing at the level of inflation, the total surplus from fiscal 2002 through 2006 would total just $247 billion, about half the size of Bush's tax cut and with no room for additional spending.
In another assumption, which is that domestic discretionary spending remains frozen at the levels enacted in fiscal 2000, produces a non-Social Security surplus of $566 billion during that five-year period. Bush's tax and spending proposals already exceed that by $3 billion.
Bush campaign officials said their assumptions anticipate a surplus of $586 billion during that five-year period, and they predict that it could be much larger. They also said Bush later on would detail proposals to cut spending in the context of proposals to reform the federal government.
But the GOP nominee still faces difficult questions about his agenda, and may confront additional questions if he ever offers details of his plan to reform Social Security.
The major element of the plan Bush outlined Wednesday in St. Louis would increase the number of federally funded community and migrant health care centers by 1,000 to a total of 4,200 at a cost of about $3.6 billion over five years.
The balance of the $4.3 billion would be spent on two other initiatives: reforming the National Health Service Corps -- a scholarship and loan repayment program that places doctors in underserved areas -- to boost the number of doctors participating and get them to areas of highest need; and offering $500 million in grants to establish pilot programs that address targeted health risks, such as childhood diabetes.
Several people in the crowd praised Bush's vision, but some also expressed skepticism that he could accomplish all he proposes. ''It's great ... if it really happens,'' said Karen Berryman Harvey, a a St. Louis's Family Health Care Centers. ''That's real money. It's got to come from somewhere.''
Gore, speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, challenged Bush's credibility on health care, education and the environment, saying the governor cannot be believed because he has ignored health care in Texas. ''How can we believe what he says he would do nationally when we see what he actually has done as governor,'' Gore said. ''At its heart, this is about something more than public policy; it is about credibility.''
Fleischer scoffed at Gore's criticisms, saying the Democratic nominee and his campaign are ''conjuring up worst-case scenarios'' because Bush is making inroads into key voter groups. But in attempting to be a tax-cutting Republican who wants to spend more freely on unmet domestic needs, Bush has created the climate for a fierce debate in the months ahead.
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