The Breakfast Table

It’s the Feeling That Counts

Dear Chris and Chris (or do I have it reversed?),

As the gray light of a cold dawn signals the start of a new day in this war-torn capital, I realize with thunder-struck awe that we are just 14 hours away from a defining moment in the risk-taking presidency of George W. Bush. At this very moment, hundreds of members of Congress are standing in front of their bathroom mirrors practicing the spontaneous sound bites that they will offer to the cameras at roughly 10 p.m. (Eastern time) as they volunteer their off-the-cuff reactions to the State of the Union address. Whether they are Republicans (“It was a masterful speech in which the president made a compelling case to the American people”) or Democrats (“I have to say, with all due respect, that I found little new in the speech beyond the president’s stubborn determination to jeopardize Medicare and give tax breaks to the wealthy”), no politician will dare depart from the comforting clichés of American politics.

I rather like Chris C.’s notion that “like Clinton, Bush is practicing everything-but-the-kitchen-sink politics.” And I too have problems with the new orthodoxy that Bush is simply Ronald Reagan’s heir. But Bush’s determined effort to portray himself as the militaristic milkman president who delivers both guns and butter to our doorsteps represents the politics of precognition. For those who remember Minority Report, the inherent problem with precognition is that even if you know your fate, you find yourself powerless to avoid it. Everything in the Bush presidency is designed to avoid reliving the mistakes of Good Ol’$2 41 (that moniker makes the first President Bush sound like an old-time steam locomotive) who won the Gulf War too early to distract the voters from a sputtering economy.

Politically, it might be wise for Bush to concoct a seemingly honorable way to delay the return bout with Saddam until this fall so that the president can still bask in the glow of his probable star-spangled triumph during the re-election campaign. But such a policy of strategic delay would leave the American invasion force in a softball-playing state of limbo too long to suit the military planners. The alternative approach is to try to put some policy flesh-and-blood on the Bush family crest: “Message—I care.” By taking on Social Security and Medicare, Bush can revel in watching the Democrats rush to the barricades to defend the status quo of our welfare state for the elderly. The flawed details of Bush’s programs really don’t matter. For what counts are the feeling tones: Bush playing the courageous far-sighted leader and the Democrats timorously clinging to the failed policies of the past.

That’s why the real threat facing Bush is not Saddam’s hidden arsenal but the dire possibility of a double-dip recession. With Bill Frist and Tom DeLay ruling Congress, it would take more than Rove-ian gymnastics to blame the Democrats for the downward slide in the economy. So Bush’s speech tonight will be an effort to transcend precognition through inoculation. How it will ultimately play out, only Time (and Newsweek) will tell.