Bush: Capturing the 'Education' Moment?
Standing before an audience of high-school students in New Hampshire early this year, George Bush made a proclamation that would become a hallmark of his campaign for the White House: "I want to be the education President."
"I want to lead a renaissance of quality in our schools," he said.
"I can say unequivocally that I will not support any further cuts in total federal funding for education," the Vice President continued. "We can spend more wisely, but we must not spend less."
The surprising remarks, coming early in the primaries when the candidate was deeply embroiled in other issues, created little stir. But they can be viewed in retrospect as the opening wedge in an all-out Republican effort to pry the education issue from Democrats' grasp.
Some who are close to the Vice President contend that the "education President" line "came from the heart." The evidence on the candidate's public record, however, offers little clear indication that that is the case.
But Republican operatives and political observers agree that Mr. Bush's move marked an astute recognition that, as he said when he endorsed the idea of a tax-free college savings bond in 1987, "good education is good policy, and good politics."
It was particularly good politics in January 1988. The New Hampshire primary was little more than a month away when Mr. Bush appeared before the Manchester High School audience--a crucial time in his campaign.
Questions about his role in the sale of arms to Iran and the covert funding of the Contras in Nicaragua were still hounding him on the campaign trail. Headlines were proclaiming that he had been present at national-security briefings on the arms sale.
He also was fielding strong attacks from his chief opponent for the nomination, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, who had questioned Mr. Bush's leadership ability in light of his uncertain role in the Administration.
"Clearly it was imperative for the Bush campaign to declare an agenda of some kind at that point," observes Eddie Mahe, a Republican campaign consultant. "The campaign wanted to stress some separation."
The move also allowed Mr. Bush to move away from policies that he had loyally, but reluctantly, supported, according to former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. "In my opinion, education is one area that he has been uncomfortable with over the past eight years, " he observes.
And "the more he began to talk about education publicly, the better reaction it got," Robert Teeter, Mr. Bush's adviser and pollster, was quoted as saying early in the campaign.
The education issues have particular appeal to baby-boom voters born between the end of World War II and the early 1960's, suggests Maureen Steinbruner, acting president of the Center for National Policy. Polls have shown that this group is keenly concerned about the quality of education, she notes.
Adds John Chubb, a senior fellow in governmental studies at the Brookings Institute: "By talking about education, particularly college education, Mr. Bush hopes to win some votes from the middle-class voters, who have demonstrated a certain anxiety about college costs."
"I think it's clear that he has said in speeches and in informal comments that he doesn't think the Administration has done enough in education," Charles W. Greenleaf, Mr. Bush's domestic-policy director at the White House, contended at a meeting of the Council of Great City Schools this month. "Sure, he's been a loyal Vice President, but now that he is a candidate himself, he is speaking out on what he wants to do."
At the same time, argues Representative Bill Goodling, an education adviser to Mr. Bush, the candidate's stand reflects the fact that the Reagan Administration has given education a political importance it has rarely had in the past.
"In this election, education has played a stronger role because we are looking at a totally different set of cir4cumstances than in the past," Mr. Goodling says. "This Administration has pointed out the deficiencies that need to be corrected. Education simply hasn't been as critical an issue in prior elections as it is today."
In fact, there is little evidence on the public record that the candidate himself viewed the issue as "critical" prior to the current campaign.
Much of that record on education comes from Mr. Bush's two-term stint, from 1967-71, as a U.S. Representative from a suburban Houston district.
Since Mr. Bush had little chance to influence education legislation from his seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, his views can be determined largely through his House floor votes.
Although Representative Bush consistently voted in favor of higher-education funding bills and some other education programs, he compiled a mixed record on elementary and secondary programs.
In 1967, he split with a majority of his party in voting against legislation extending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. In doing so, he was part of a conservative coalition that sought to roll many of the programs authorized by that landmark law into a single block grant.
Mr. Bush voted for a 1969 reauthorization of the law after the House agreed to consolidate a variety of education programs.
He generally voted against funding increases for elementary and secondary education programs.
In 1969, for example, Mr. Bush was part of the minority of Republicans who voted against adding $900 million for Office of Education programs. He later voted to sustain President Nixon's veto of the bill containing the additional funds.
But later in the year Mr. Bush split with President Nixon and reversed his previous stance, voting in favor of an increase in education funding.
He was consistent, however, in backing House amendments limiting the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's influence in desegregation cases. The amendments were strongly opposed by lobbyists for civil-rights groups.
The proposals, which were repeatedly adopted by the House but diluted by the Senate, would have barred the department from using funds to bus students, abolish schools, or make pupil assignments against parents' wishes.
After giving up his House seat for an unsuccessful Senate campaign against Lloyd Bentsen in 1970, Mr. Bush held a series of political and foreign-policy positions that provide no record of the candidate's interest in education issues.
Nor did he make education a theme in his bid for the 1980 gop Presidential nomination. A sample stump speech from that campaign makes only one passing reference to education.
Thereafter, having accepted Ronald Reagan's offer of the Vice Presi8dential nomination that year, Mr. Bush campaigned for a ticket that pledged to abolish the newly established U.S. Education Department and substantially shrink the federal role in education.
There is no public evidence that Vice President Bush opposed the Administration's immediate moves to obtain major reductions in the federal budget for education--by as much as 33 percent in 1982. According to a recent study by Deborah A. Verstegen and David L. Clark, education researchers at the University of Virginia, federal spending has dropped about 12 percent since 1981, once inflation is taken into account.
The Vice President's only visible association with education issues came early in the Administration's first term, when he was assigned, as head of a task force on "regulatory relief," the job of planning how to "roll back" a number of federal rules. Education areas targeted included Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, bilingual- and special-education rules, anti-bias provisions, and rules governing the National School Lunch Program.
The task force's efforts came under harsh attack from education groups, and it quietly lost steam, although federal officials years later achieved some changes in education-related regulations.
At least until the 1988 Presidential campaign began, Mr. Bush consistently defended the Administration's education policies. And he has declined to reveal if he ever complained privately to the President about cuts in education funding.
The Vice President's private life offers some evidence of an interest in educational equity but little association with the field's most pressing concerns.
The son of a wealthy U.S. Senator, he attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Yale University.
Mr. Bush sent his children to such exclusive private schools as St. Albans in Washington and Miss Porter's in Farmington, Conn.
Insofar as his autobiography Looking Forward indicates, Mr. Bush's formal education did not have a notable impact on his personal development. The book devotes more space to his captaincy of the Yale baseball team than to the economics instruction he received there.
But the Vice President has philanthropic interests in education. A portion of the proceeds from Looking Forward will go to the United Negro College Fund, to which the Bushes have been consistent contributors over the last 15 years. In addition, Mr. Bush has served on the board of trustees of Andover.
His wife Barbara appears to be the education activist in the family. Mrs. Bush has donated both time and money, including the proceeds from a children's book she wrote, to Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy International.
She also serves on the national board of the Reading Is Fundamental program.
Those who know the Vice President personally insist that his feelings too run deep on the importance of education.
"We had time to sit and talk, without reporters, without anyone around," recalls former Secretary Bell of a 1983 family vacation with the Bushes. "I can tell you that Mr. Bush does believe that education is tied to our economic strength and to our need for competitiveness."
Former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a member of Mr. Bush's education-advisory panel, concurs. "When he says he wants to be the education President, it is not a canned statement contrived by a consultant," he says. "That's one of the things that impresses me--he seems to feel it and mean it."
And having a candidate who "feels it", political strategists say, meshes well with the larger Republican effort to seize all the "family issues," including not only education but child care and health care, from the Democratic party.
"The Republicans have grabbed the baton from the Democrats on education," says Denis Doyle, senior research fellow of the Hudson Institute. "For Mr. Bush, I think it is a nice marriage of genuine conviction and political mileage."
Mr. Alexander points to the advantage Mr. Bush and other Republicans have in not being closely linked to powerful education interest groups. It is easier for them to embrace a "new agenda" for education, he says.
"Mr. Dukakis is the endorsed candidate of the National Education Association, so he basically stands for the status quo," Mr. Alexander argues. "The Republicans are offering the candidate of change."
Still, political observers say it will not be easy for the Republican campaign to gain much political leverage from the issue.
Although candidates have to assure voters that they are sensitive to educational concerns, the issue itself does not necessarily produce many votes, notes Mr. Mahe, the Republican campaign consultant.
"Education has a high level of volunteer response," he says. "But because people relate education to the local government, it is too long of a reach to really drive voters to the polls" in national elections.
Mr. Bush's real success with education, he noted, is "to keep the Democrats from beating us over the head with the issue."
Thus far, campaign strategists argue, the strategy has been extraordinarily effective--even though, as Samuel Halperin, study director of the W.T. Grant Foundation, puts it, "If you were here in 1981, '82, and '83 and saw the Reagan Administration dismantle much of the children, youth, and education programs, you'd be terribly surprised to see the heir of that Administration, George Bush, say he wants to be the education President."
But the Vice President's pledge of devotion to education is more important than his stand on any particular issue, past or present, according to Representative Goodling.
"George Bush has committed himself publicly to providing leadership for education," he says. "That is superior to ticking off a laundry list."