It was not easy to discern a theme in President Bush’s brisk tour of the political world last night, but we think that there was one: Don’t retreat. He called on Americans not to retreat in the war on terrorism, not to retreat from the world economy, and not to retreat from our domestic challenges. The president has identified the weakness of the Democrats’ position on the war–its defeatism–and sought to extend it to the broad range of issues.
The war. The president began by refusing to retreat from his much-criticized Second Inaugural Address. In that address, as in this speech, the president drew a connection between the spread of freedom abroad and the safety of Americans at home. Even those of us who accept that such a connection exists have wondered whether it is as tight as the president claims. We thought that last year’s inaugural address was insufficiently modulated, but so too was the criticism. Perhaps as a result, last night he made even fewer concessions. “Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer, so we will act boldly in freedom’s cause.” Every step? We wish it were so.
Luckily, conceptual imprecision does not inevitably lead to bad policy. Bush steered the right course on Hamas, neutrally noting its election victory in the Palestinian Authority while demanding that it disarm and repudiate terrorism. He attempted to drive a wedge between the Iranian people and regime. He explained the dolorous consequences of leaving Iraq prematurely. Here he had some of the best partisan zingers of the speech: “Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.”
The president also nicely defended the supposedly “domestic” components of the war, such as the NSA’s wiretaps and the Patriot Act. Democrats want to have it both ways on the wiretaps, denouncing “domestic eavesdropping” while also claiming that their only critique of the president’s actions is a legal one. Yet when Bush said, in concluding his defense of the surveillance, that “we will not sit back and wait to be hit again,” the Democrats’ response was, precisely, to sit back rather than applaud that sentiment.
Tim Kaine’s response reinforced the impression that Democrats believe their support for generous veterans’ benefits is a political substitute for impressing the public with their strength and seriousness on national security.
Health care. The president outlined a series of proposals to use free markets to improve American health care. While we would quibble with some of the details–we’re not sure why, for example, the federal government should relieve the states of the responsibility to reform their own medical liability laws–the overall approach seems right, and is a welcome change from the usual Republican inattention to the issue.
Energy policy. The president’s comment that America is “addicted to oil” and his support for subsidies for alternative sources of energy are being taken as a retreat from his previous energy policies. This impression is misleading. A closer look shows that he is sticking with his support for throwing federal money at all types of energy production. We doubt that Bush’s subsidies will do more to promote the goal of energy independence than previous presidents’ subsidies have. But the goal itself is also questionable. No American energy policy is going to lessen our dependence on the world economy or make that world economy much less dependent on Mideast oil. Here, as with “competitiveness,” Congress should take a good hard look at the president’s proposals, and then start subtracting.
Republicans had a bad year in 2005, and the party’s imperative in 2006 appears to be to hold its losses. That circumstance, and the way the president’s speech reflected it, are not inspiring. Neither should they be too dismaying. Majority parties have bad years, and making the appropriate adjustments to hold down losses is what successful ones do during those years. If this Republican majority is going to last, it will have to avoid panic, despair, and escapism. It will have to listen to the president: Don’t retreat.