February 3, 2006
Bush, Democrats Talk 'Good Will' But Prepare for War

By Mort Kondracke

The calendar said Jan. 31 when President Bush delivered his State of the Union address and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine responded for the Democratic Party. But both of them wore Halloween costumes of conciliatory bipartisanship.

"To confront the great issues before us," Bush said, "we must act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another - and I will do my part."

"Our greatest need is for America to heal its partisan wounds and become one people," Kaine said, quoting Thomas Jefferson. "Tonight we pray, earnestly and humbly, for that healing, and for the day when service returns again as the better way to a new national politics."

Amen. If only both sides meant what they said.

Bush identified a series of issues - the competitiveness challenge from China and India, America's "addiction" to oil, rising health care costs, the challenge of the baby boomer generation's retirement, the necessity to win victory in Iraq and ward off terrorism - that cry out for a bipartisan working-out of solutions.

But the sad reality is that Republicans and Democrats are in a state of near-total war, and this is a decisive election year in which Democrats hope to seize back control of one or both chambers of Congress and use their new power to investigate all the real and imagined wrongdoing of the Bush administration.

And, I strongly suspect, they will look for grounds and evidence to try to impeach Bush, making his last years in office the kind of hell that Republicans tried to inflict on former President Bill Clinton.

Until Bush fought back last year, Democrats mounted a campaign to expose his alleged "lies" prior to the Iraq war. Now they charge that he "broke the law" in ordering warrantless "domestic spying."

If Democrats were to take control of the House, it's almost impossible to imagine that they could restrain themselves in trying to flay Bush and then put him in the dock. Republicans know full well what's at stake in the 2006 election, so it will be bitter.

And beneath a thin veneer of conciliation, Bush flashed the weapons that he'll certainly employ as the year goes on and partisan conflict intensifies - charges that those who refuse to follow his lead represent "isolationism," "protectionism," "decline" and "retreat."

Two weeks ago, Bush political adviser Karl Rove laid out pretty explicitly how the '06 campaign will be fought - by accusing "many" Democrats of having "a pre-9/11 worldview." "It doesn't make them unpatriotic," he said. "But it does make them wrong - deeply and profoundly wrong."

Bush told Congress in the State of the Union that "in this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and character of our country. We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom - or retreat from our duties.

"We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy - or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting, yet it ends in danger and decline.

"The only way to protect our people, the only way to secure the peace, the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership - so the United States will continue to lead."

The implication: You're on my side or the other.

He was most explicit about this on Iraq: "There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy."

He specifically condemned calls for "sudden withdrawal" like that of Democratic Rep. John Murtha (Pa.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), and Bush aides believe that contrasts between their position and Bush's have helped lift his approval ratings from the mid-to-high 30s to the low 40s.

Top Republicans think Bush has an approval rating of about 44 percent among likely voters - just a few points below where he needs to be for the GOP to keep control of the House and Senate. Starkly contrasting Bush against Democrats has worked before for the GOP. It's certain to be tried again.

On the other side, Kaine flashed no particular Democratic weapons in his response to Bush. He himself was the Democrats' Halloween mask - a religious, red-state moderate fronting for a party dominated by deep blue.

While Kaine was on television, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) issued a critique of Bush that suggested that there will be no working together.

"While the president is right to talk about the American addiction to oil, Americans wonder why the president enabled that addiction for the last five years by failing to propose real solutions to lower prices and increase our energy independence," he said.

He also accused Bush of talking a good game on health care, but proposing "solutions that do nothing to reduce health care costs or make us healthier." And, Reid added, "Democrats agree that there's no honor in retreat. But there's no honor in sending our troops to battle without the armor, intelligence and planning they need to keep them safe.

"There's no honor in using the politics of fear to mute democratic debate after his mismanagement of the war and lack of plan for victory put the nation at greater risk."

Reid also said Bush wants people to trust that he's keeping them safe and not breaking the law, "but after his mismanagement of the war, lawless detentions and secret warrantless wiretaps on U.S. citizens, he has broken that trust."

There's some slight reason to hope that the parties could agree to double research in the physical sciences over 10 years, train more math and science teachers, create a new bipartisan commission on baby boomer retirement and boost energy research.

More likely, though, we'll see a bidding war in which Democrats charge that Bush is not doing enough or spending enough because his tax cuts are too big. There's actually merit in this criticism and, in a different climate, there'd be bargaining and compromise.

But in this climate - a perpetual war for power - it's hard to see how any of America's big problems get solved. The American people deserve better.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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