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Needed: Catchword For Bush Ideology; 'Communitarianism' Finds Favor

Dana Milbank, The Washington Post
February 1, 2001, Thursday, Final Edition SECTION: A SECTION; Pg. A01

It's been difficult to pin an ideological tail on the nascent Bush White House. One day the president is called a staunch conservative for nominating John D. Ashcroft to run the Justice Department and acting to restrict U.S. funding to overseas groups that support abortions. The next he's labeled a bleeding heart for helping prisoners' children and promoting literacy programs.

The problem, some Bush advisers and friends say, is that conventional political definitions do not adequately explain what the president is trying to do. His actions have less to do with the left vs. right, they say, than with his embrace of many of the ideas contained in the movement known as "communitarianism," which places the importance of society ahead of the unfettered rights of the individual.

"This is the ultimate Third Way," said Don Eberly, an adviser in the Bush White House, using a favorite phrase of President Bill Clinton, who also sought, largely unsuccessfully, to redefine the debate with an alternative to the liberal-conservative conflict. "The debate in this town the last eight years was how to forge a compromise on the role of the state and the market. This is a new way to rethink social policy: a major reigniting of interest in the social sector."

"Communitarianism," or "civil society" thinking (the two have similar meanings) has many interpretations, but at its center is a notion that years of celebrating individual freedom have weakened the bonds of community and that the rights of the individual must be balanced against the interests of society as a whole. Inherent in the philosophy is a return to values and morality, which, the school of thought believes, can best be fostered by community organizations. "We need to connect with one another. We've got to move a little more in the direction of community in the balance between community and the individual," said Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University, a leading communitarian thinker.

Many of Bush's early proposals fit this approach. This week, Bush moved to make it easier for the government to fund religious groups that cater to the poor and disadvantaged. He also gave a boost to AmeriCorps, the national service program that sends volunteers to help community initiatives. Last week, Bush rolled out an education plan that gave localities more authority over their schools. A week earlier, he spoke of the need for character education in schools. Even his tax plan, due next week, has what are touted as community-building elements: a new charitable tax credit, a charitable deduction for those who don't itemize, and a reduction of the marriage penalty.

Bush's inaugural address, said George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, a communitarian thinker, "was a communitarian text," full of words like "civility," "responsibility" and "community." That's no accident: Bush's advisers consulted on the speech with Putnam. At the same time, Bush has recruited some of the leading thinkers of the "civil society," or "communitarian," movements to his White House: former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio, fatherhood advocate Eberly, speechwriters Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner. Even Lawrence B. Lindsey, long before becoming Bush's economics adviser, was a Federal Reserve governor who explored ways to lure capital to rebuild poor urban communities.

"It all hangs together," said Goldsmith, this week assigned by Bush to help lead AmeriCorps and the new community-building effort. Might the civil society or communitarian label be the element that ties Bush's polices together? "I don't think it's reading too much into it," Goldsmith said. "This is the president, this is what animates him."

Some of Bush's ideas are objectionable to civil liberties advocates and strict constitutionalists on the left and the right, but they have broad support in both parties. Exhibit A was the appearance Tuesday of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) at a Bush event touting his "faith-based" efforts. "The new president has some promising instincts and there are some promising examples," said William Galston, a communitarian thinker at the University of Maryland who served as a Clinton policy adviser. Though Bush is inconsistent, Galston said, "the president, in moving in this direction, is building on one of the defining features of American society. It's potential common ground for a much wider swath of American society."

But Galston and other communitarians say Bush's fealty to communitarian thinking is inconsistent. While he espouses a range of community-building policies, his $ 1.6 trillion tax cut is, at its core, a libertarian idea: give people back their money to limit government, they point out. At the same time, they add, his choice of Gale A. Norton to head the Interior Department and Spencer Abraham to be energy secretary reflects libertarian thinking: they both favor deregulated environmental and land policy.

Other communitarians wonder whether Bush's community-minded words are mere drapery, and they suspect top Bush strategist Karl Rove, who introduced Bush to the thinking, sees it merely as a tactic to please religious conservatives. Rove declines to discuss the subject. Other communitarians say they fear Bush, who believes in changing individual "hearts" through religious salvation, is more concerned with legislating religion than instilling community values.

Still, said Putnam, "this administration is doing some somewhat surprising things," particularly Bush's shot in the arm for AmeriCorps. Putnam held a series of seminars on communitarianism, attended at times by Goldsmith, DiIulio, and the Rev. Kirbyjohn Caldwell, a Bush friend.

Bush's education plan would give local communities more power to create charter schools and set up their own education systems, as long as they meet performance standards. Bush has also called for a range of new programs: mentoring for the children of prisoners, prerelease rehabilitation programs in prisons, maternity group homes, and access to after-school and literacy programs for poor children. In addition to a new charitable tax credit and expanded deduction, Bush is seeking to induce corporations, through tax incentives and a "compassion capital fund," to pay for more charitable programs. His "faith-based initiative" would allow religious charities to receive government funds without giving up their religious teachings.

Bush is also preparing an initiative to promote fathers' responsibilities to their children. While he hasn't promised significant funding to his new Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, Goldsmith, DiIulio and Eberly believe they have a broad mandate. "There's a specific mission, but there's a broader effort of social-sector renewal writ large," Eberly said. "This is about the incubation of democratic values and habits."

Even more libertarian elements of Bush's program, such as individual retirement accounts and tax credits for health care, have a communitarian element, Goldsmith argued, because they require individuals to be responsible for themselves and their families.

Communitarians say Bush has yet to embrace some of their other favorite ideas: workplace flexibility to allow employees more time with families and communities, limits on urban sprawl, campaign finance reform, and having the wealthy pay more for certain government benefits. Still, Bush is mulling over another favorite of communitarians. Aides say he is weighing a levy like the "e-rate" charge on phone bills to get schools wired to the Internet. They say Bush believes such funds could build not just physical but civic infrastructures for communities, funding programs that bring neighbors together or promote civics education.

There is still no such thing as a card-carrying communitarian, and therefore no consensus on policies. Some, such as DiIulio and outside Bush adviser Marvin Olasky, favor religious solutions for communities, while others, like Etzioni and Galston, prefer secular approaches. But both sides believe Bush is nudging the White House in a more communitarian, civil-society direction.

"It is very likely to make a positive contribution," Galston said of Bush's efforts. Olasky concurs. Bush has moved Republicans away from believing that individuals are "lone atoms" apart from community, Olasky said. "He is a civil society guy."