Politics & Policy

Running On Empty

Where are the big ideas?

Vice President Dick Cheney gave assembled reporters at the Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner a tongue-in-cheek assurance that there is nothing to the idea that White House staffers are tired out–as a slide show that accompanied his talk flashed photos of Bush aides fast asleep on the job.

The crowd guffawed. But it’s not physical exhaustion that is hampering the White House so much as the intellectual kind. And that’s not so easily cured by the widely anticipated staff “shake-up” that is now under way with White House Chief of Staff Andy Card’s replacement by Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten.

Ask GOP strategists what the party needs, and they invariably say something like, “It would help to get a lucky break in Iraq.” Indeed, it would, but the standard for what constitutes such a break has been ever-sinking. At this point, it might be avoiding a full-fledged civil war and seeing the Iraqis form a government, any government. Neither can be expected to be a political boon to the president.

President Bush swept into his second term determined not to be overcome by the political lassitude that traditionally drags down second-term presidencies. He had an ambitious reform agenda, and initially the debate among his supporters was over what should come first: Social Security reform or tax reform? Bush went for Social Security reform, and it sank without a trace, with tax reform quickly going the same way.

Thus, Bush lost the fight for the Big Ideas of his second term and has instead been thrown back to trying desperately to keep alive the Big Idea from his first term: democratizing Iraq. Other policy arrows in his quiver have been shot, since the budget deficit makes more tax cuts politically unsalable, and more big-spending measures are out for the same reason. To the extent that Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was ever a coherent approach to governing, it is now spent, and it’s not clear that the White House–nor the broader conservative community–has any bright, plausible ideas about what should fill the void.

The one major new initiative Bush has left–a guest-worker program and quasi-amnesty for illegal immigrants–might pass Congress, but it’s unpopular with the public. Congressional Republicans have been distancing themselves from Bush, but key GOP senators embraced a version of his approach after massive anti-enforcement protests. It’s a sign of the times that Mexican flag-waving immigrants might have as much sway on the Hill as Bush’s congressional-relations shop.

After GOP strategists muse about reaping a windfall of good fortune in Iraq, they tend to say that an election isn’t a referendum on one party, but a choice: “You can’t beat something with nothing.” But the truth of that truism depends on how people feel about “something.” If it is unpopular enough, they will go elsewhere. At the moment, the most accurate description of the competition between the parties might be Bush’s “nothing”–the difficult Iraq War and guest-worker program aside–versus the Democrats’ “nothing.”

The Democrats are trying to dress theirs up with notionally substantive proposals. They just released a national-security plan, the centerpiece of which is “eliminating” Osama bin Laden. As if somewhere in the bowels of Bush’s National Security Council an official is hitting his forehead saying, “I wish we had thought of that!” But Democrats would be foolish to identify themselves with anything more specific than broadly popular bromides, when Bush’s and the GOP’s poor standing is their best asset.

The GOP still has a few things on its side–time (the public mood could shift before the fall); gerrymandering (so few congressional districts are competitive that it will be difficult for Democrats to find enough to pick off); and events (maybe, just maybe, Bush does get lucky somewhere). But none of this goes to the White House’s real vulnerability: Intellectually, it is running on empty, no matter which long-serving Bush loyalist happens to be chief of staff.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2006 King Features Syndicate

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