on the Right was that President Bush's fifth State of the Union
Address was his worst. Republican congressmen agreed privately
that he was most effective at the beginning with his familiar
message of why U.S. forces cannot abandon Iraq. The problem for
these lawmakers was the rest of the 51-minute presentation, which
was filled with unpleasant surprises.
showing the president's approval rating persistently anemic (as
low as 39 percent), the speech aimed at a kinder, gentler Bush.
But beyond atmospherics, the policy initiatives staked out new
directions in the sixth year of his presidency that raised questions.
Is this the real George W. Bush? Is he really his true father's
son and not Ronald Reagan's?
seemed more comfortable with his foreign policy declarations than
with what followed, but even here he did not live up to expectations.
Pre-speech tips from White House aides and from Bush himself had
pointed to laying down the law to the Iranian regime (step back
from nuclear arms) and the Hamas party in Palestine (recognize
Israel). He did so, but not with the force and specificity promised.
Bush backed away from what a year earlier were labeled as the
two great initiatives of his second term. He complained that "Congress
did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security,"
unintentionally setting off self-congratulatory celebration by
Democrats on the floor. But Bush made no promises about trying
to revive his personal accounts. The president did not even give
the comprehensive tax reform the courtesy of a death notice. It
went unmentioned and apparently unmourned.
the speech, one conservative Republican senator fantasized about
Bush turning to Democrats and calling on them to pass permanent
tax cuts and then turning to Republicans and calling on them to
cut spending. He did call for permanent tax cuts and for control
over spending, but so briefly and undramatically that the president's
demands lost their impact.
what bothered conservatives most about Tuesday night's performance
was not what the president failed to do but what he actually did.
The pre-speech public relations drumbeat had promised the president
would deliver a new energy initiative to Americans angry about
the price of gasoline. Indeed, Bush deplored that "America
is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts
of the world" and promised to end "our dependence on
Middle Eastern oil." It was how he would accomplish this
that stunned conservatives.
proposed that the government preside over a wide array of non-petroleum
energy options. That has all the characteristics of an "industrial
policy," with the federal government picking winners and
losers. While violating the Republican Party's free market philosophy,
this is a course with a lengthy pedigree of failure all over the
State of the Union address that neglected the Republican goal
of reforming the tax system called for an American Competitiveness
Initiative that also promises an extension of growing, intrusive
government. That would expand still more the federal role in education.
Instead of shrinking the federal government, Bush wants to grow
this change in direction will lead to a kinder, gentler Democratic
Party in Congress. Tuesday night's response by newly elected Virginia
Gov. Tim Kaine, while far more partisan than the president's speech,
was relatively moderate and restrained. But it will not be Kaine
with whom Bush must deal in this election. It is the fiercely
partisan Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi and
rhetoric can be stiffened as this year moves toward the serious
business of midterm elections. But what happens to the blueprint
for big government laid out by President Bush Tuesday night? That
will not be easy to reverse.