How Bush Did

by John O'Sullivan

For what they’re worth, a few quick reactions to the speech:

First, the foreign-affairs section of the speech was by far the best. It sounded strong and lured the Democrats into some unwise reactions, notably where he responded by listing the nations engaged in the Coalition effort. But there is a problem. Though he struck a firm unapologetic note on Iraq, it was less than a perfect fit with his administration’s attempt to enlist U.N. help in its troubles with Sistani. And his pro-democracy rhetoric does not quite square with the CPA’s proposal for a handover to the unelected council. These things will have to be reconciled in due course. For the moment, however, a quite effective presentation of the foreign-policy case. He sounds like a patriotic American, anxious to defeat his country’s enemies, while his opponents mostly come off seeming to calculate their advantage in everything.

His domestic passages were less impressive. At times, one was reminded of Clinton’s SOTU lists of new minor government programs on everything or “lots and lots of little government.” Pretty soon you’re talking serious money, as Ramesh rightly complained last night. The exception was tax policy which, again, was bold and rhetorically effective, and likely to arouse his base. That will probably be enough to win in November, especially if the economy continues to perform well. But Bush’s latest poll figures do not encourage complacency. It would be prudent of him to shape more conservative policies (and rhetoric) on spending in order to firm up his libertarian and economist support. And it can’t hurt as policy.

Two specific policy passages struck me as significant. I agree with Madame K and disagree with Rod on the federal marriage amendment. It struck me as a qualified commitment but a strong one–and one furthermore that was rightly attached to a warning against cheap anti-gay sneers. I think the tone of it will have gone down well with Middle America which is important. If opposition to gay marriage morphs into general hostility to gays, it will lose. Bush took steps to avert that and perhaps to nullify any crudities that do get expressed. As to the future, if the courts go further in imposing radical change, the President will either have to redeem his pledge or lose significant support from traditionalists for his betrayal. As the election approaches, that will concentrate his mind wonderfully.

Incidentally, he might want to consider making a more general case against judicial imperialism–his rhetorical attack on it tonight went down well. I thought his passage on the immigration-reform package confirmed Derb’s prediction that the administration would back away from it. It was the absolute minimum he could say in its defense. It made the rhetorical concession, meaningless as policy but a sign of weakness on the issue, of opposing the “amnesty” that is the reality of his policy. And he chanced no noble rhetoric in commending it. Fortunately so, since the passage received perhaps the coolest reception of the entire speech. My suspicion is that the White House realizes what a public-relations disaster the immigration package has been not only with the conservative base but also with Middle America. It may well explain the dip in Bush’s popularity in recent polls. And they will probably let it slip beneath the radar for a time–maybe until after the election when it can be reintroduced without electoral risk. That means we should keep hammering at it in the hope of getting an actual retraction before November.

All in all, I would award the president something between a Beta Plus Plus and an Alpha Minus Minus for rhetoric. As to policy, I prefer to think of it as a work in progress rather than to give a final mark now.

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