The Breakfast Table

The Electric Excitement Builds

Dear Chris C. and Chris B. (or would you esteemed gentlemen prefer “Chris-squared”?),

My biggest disappointment in scanning the morning’s papers was the shortage of State of the Union clichés. No one talked about the electric excitement building in the august chambers of the House of Representatives as President George W. Bush prepared to deliver what may prove to be the most politically pivotal address of his presidency. Nor could I find anyone speculating about the mystery guests in the balcony (Hans Blix? Larry David? Gerhard Schroeder?). In my desperation, I would have settled for a profile of the House doorkeeper (no longer, alas, Fishbait Miller), describing the electric thrill he gets every January when he shouts, “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.”

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Deprived of my ration of bromides and truisms, let me offer one of my own: A successful State of the Union needs to pivot on a surprise. Think of the Monica-mired Bill Clinton reshaping the 1998 budget battle with his politically inspired cry of “Save Social Security first.” (OK, it surprised me at the time and held off tax cuts for three years.) The stunner embodied in last year’s “axis of evil” was the warp speed at which Bush had shifted the debate from al-Qaida and Osama to rogue nations seemingly unconnected to the Sept. 11 attacks.

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But what could possibly be surprising about this year’s speech? Regarding Iraq, Bush has already run through his flash-card list of varying ways to say, “This time, I’m really, really losing my patience.” As for tax cuts, not even speechwriter Michael Gerson can come up with a rhetorical flourish that hasn’t already been used in some Bush it’s-your-money speech. And while I love Chris C.’s notion that Bush might surprisingly out-pander the Democrats on prescription drugs, I just can’t see how a health-care bidding war will trump the rush toward war as the centerpiece of this year’s State of the Union.

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Two thoughts to ponder as the electric excitement builds:

1) The Bush no-taxes-please-we’re-dividends economic plan is designed to goose the stock market. But a front-pager in today’s Wall Street Journal warns, “Prospect of War Weighs on Stocks; Even Quick Victory May Not Help.” So, all in all, the Bush agenda (tax cuts and war) would appear to be a downer for the Dow. Not only does this cause Karl Rove political problems, but it also confuses anti-war protesters who believe that war and capitalism are now and forever one and inseparable.

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2) The president’s most serious difficulty in arguing for a go-it-nearly-alone strategy on Iraq is the stunning, jaw-dropping popularity of the United Nations and the weapons inspectors. As today’s USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll reveals, the public is now split 47 percent to 47 percent on whether they have more trust in Bush or the United Nations “to make the right decisions regarding Iraq.” That’s right, a feckless world body that features the perfidious French and Germans (not to mention Syria and Pakistan) on the Security Council is trusted as much as our beloved wartime president. And Bush will be hard pressed to demonize the weapons inspectors as the inept enablers of evil: The same poll finds that 76 percent of those surveyed believed that Blix and Company are doing a “good job.”

More to come this afternoon, gentlemen, after I fly to Washington to experience the electric excitement firsthand.

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