The Breakfast Table

Look for Interesting Domestic Flourishes

Dear Walter, Chris,

We won’t get to hear the president say malaise, but it’s likely we’ll be treated to his pronunciation of terrorist (a one-syllable word that rhymes with embarrassed, as in “If you catch a tairst, you’ll make him ‘bairst”). The key thing to look for in the “foreign” part of the speech will be whether Bush, before the eyes of the world, lays out an international-law predicate for invading Iraq sans (if I may) Europe. Last fall’s U.N. Resolution 1441 doesn’t explicitly authorize force. It would tie Bush’s hands fatally if he interpreted it the way, say, Dominique de Villepin does. So, sometime before the bombs begin falling, Bush will make plain that he doesn’t. Under 1441, Iraqi obstruction is taken to “constitute a further material breach of Iraq’s obligations,” and under the Gulf War–era resolutions, such material breaches are grounds for military intervention. At least, that’s the Bush reasoning. If you hear talk of material breaches, you’ll know that war can’t be far behind.

The domestic flourishes ought to be more interesting oratorically. In the months since the midterms, Bush has reminded one of the president whose legacy he campaigned against. Like Clinton, Bush is practicing everything-but-the-kitchen-sink politics, throwing opponents off balance by keeping five or six projects going at once. But whereas Clinton’s projects, at least after the health-care debacle, were penny-ante and largely defensive—a red cape to keep the bull of scandal distracted—Bush’s are offensive. (“Proactive,” as he would put it.) They rework certain premises of the federal government.

Tonight’s speech promises to be much more a Clinton-esque laundry list than last year’s. But it will be Clinton in photographic negative. Oratorically, Bush is bound to look more defensive. That’s because voters don’t like—or don’t yet like—those programs. This is one of the ways the war is vitiating domestic policy. The president has a huge spin backlog. We talked yesterday about the dividend tax cut, on which centrist Republicans are positively Villepin-esque in their standoffishness. We’ll get some defense of that and probably a stirring attack on partial-birth abortion, which may not survive the month of February. But look, too, at the Supreme Court briefs Bush filed in the Michigan affirmative action cases. Anyone who actually reads them will see that they do nothing to eliminate racial preference, merely urging universities to import a (-nother) layer of guileful euphemism to the way they already administer affirmative action. Of course, this is not the way the briefs are being played. What’s more, the briefs are so poorly reasoned that the court is likely to ignore them. But do expect Bush to devote part of tonight’s speech to convincing minority swing voters (that Rove-ian Holy Grail) to cut him a break.

This is why I don’t quite agree with those (like E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post and Bill Keller in the New York Times) who have used the occasion of the State of the Union to cast Bush as Ronald Reagan’s heir. E.J. is certainly right that, domestically, Bush “is pursuing a more ambitious conservative agenda than Ronald Reagan ever did”—but you could say Clinton pursued a “more ambitious conservative agenda” than Reagan, too, simply because Reagan had already done a lot of things that he showed no inclination to undo, and he happened to be president during the stock-market boom. If Bush’s actions appear conservative, it’s due to zeitgeist, not temperament. In fact, Bush’s big worry tonight, as in all his big public pronouncements, is that he will come across as bossy rather than charismatic. Put differently, he’s a president who too often activates that distrust of governmental overreach that is Reagan’s real legacy.