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George and the gender gap

GEORGE BUSH's proposal of $1,000 tax credits to defray child-care costs represents his first serious effort to close the gender gap between him and Michael Dukakis. Polls have shown the vice-president consistently trailing the Democratic nominee among women voters, by a point spread sometimes well into the double digits. Such a lead does not, of course, necessarily make for a Dukakis victory in the Electoral College. But with 10 million more women of voting age in the United States than men, women are not a special-interest group out on the fringe. Mr. Bush needs their votes.

He expects his program to cost $2.2 billion, but he was no more specific on how to pay for it than Governor Dukakis has been on how to fund his programs.

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Given Bush's difficulty projecting empathy for the common man, it is notable that he is proposing a refundable tax credit: Even families who pay no tax at all could file a tax return and get a $1,000 refund, if they'd spent that on child care. This might bring back memories of George McGovern's poorly received negative income tax plan. Also, the Bush plan includes no tax incentives for employers. ``Why do businesses have to have a tax giveaway to do what they ought to do in the first place?'' a (female) Bush staff member said on this point.

All this shows that the field is wide open for creative solutions, from either party, to the challenges of the work-family balancing act. It also shows ambivalence over ``women's issues.'' ``Family issues'' has become the more politic phrase of late, and the Bush campaign calls its proposal the ``Children's Tax Credit.'' Of course these ought to be seen as ``family issues,'' not just women's issues, just as child-care costs should be weighed against the family's income, not just the wife's. We can trust women to know, though, when a candidate is supporting their interests, under whatever name.

The Democrats have been razzed for the haziness of their new platform. They seemed to be implicitly admitting that if they came out and said what they believed in, they would drive away voters.

But at least they're trying to project themselves centerward. The Republicans, who seem to have as much trouble winning Congress as the Democrats have winning the White House, have pulled off to the right in recent years. In 1980, for instance, the GOP reversed its longstanding support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Now moderates are focusing on trying to keep an antiabortion plank out of the Republican platform next month.

The Republicans will remain a minority party if they can't do better on women's issues. The Children's Tax Credit proposal is a move to the center. Ironically, some of the more moderate, mainstream positions that George Bush has felt pressured to alter or abandon are the very ones that could help win over the broader electorate.

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