Great applause line: Our new national slogan, said W. on Tuesday night, is Lets roll!
Its most certainly the administrations slogan its mantra and mission, as President Bush made abundantly apparent in his State of the Union address. Hes gonna roll the war right on, to the Philippines and the coast of Somalia, with the blessing or at least tacit consent of their governments. He told three more-antagonistic states Iran, North Korea, Iraq that we might just roll the war to their doorsteps. And he rolled right past the domestic-policy portion of his speech, giving all home-front concerns except for security such perfunctory attention that his commitment to and absorption in the war was screamingly clear.
The man has found his meaning. You could not, before September 11, squeeze the words George W. Bush and transcendent purpose into the same paragraph. At that point, the most you could say for this distractible doof was that he wanted to avenge his fathers defeat. Now, he has his raison dêtre. The nation genuinely needs a defense against terrorist attacks, and his administration will provide it. The nation needs to mount an ideological offensive against the champions of a closed society, and his administration will lead that charge (except in Saudi Arabia and other backwater allies; the worlds a messy place, you know).
In preparing this address, Bushs speechwriters, we were told, made a careful study of Franklin Roosevelts 1942 State of the Union. In that speech, delivered just one month after Pearl Harbor, FDR pledged his total commitment, and that of the nation, to defeating the Axis powers. Now, Im a firm believer that no pol (or his writers) can ever go wrong by studying Franklin Roosevelts speeches. In this case, however, I think they studied the wrong speech.
For the war that Roosevelt was waging was a bloody contest of nation-states, with definable battles, fronts and maneuvers that compelled everyones attention on every day of the war. Bush has now cast himself as the leader of a war effort whose fronts and maneuvers may not be visible, that ebbs and flows in public consciousness, that Americans now tell pollsters is the nations second most serious challenge, with the recession ranking first.
Its completely understandable that Bush sees himself as a hot war president, as Lincoln and Roosevelt were. September 11 was a cataclysmic attack on America, and the nation has been engaged in a fairly conventional, if very high-tech, war in Afghanistan. But the conflict Bush laid out to Congress and the nation this week wasnt conventional or hot; it was far closer to a second coming of the Cold War. We have enemies everywhere (tens of thousands of terrorists, Bush said more than once), but that does not mean that battles or invasions loom, and as he himself said, this struggle will go on past the end of his presidency. Which is to say, a better choice for Bushs speechwriters than the 1942-model FDR would have been Harry Trumans speeches to Congress calling for aid to Greece and Turkey in their struggles against communism, and the formation of NATO that is, the promulgation of the Cold War.
Being a cold-war president, however, plunges Bush back into the realm of normal politics, which has never really absorbed him and at which hes never particularly excelled. A cold-war president leads a nation that knows the conflict is omnipresent and important, but that has other concerns jobs, health care, the environment, taxes that at any given moment may eclipse the war. The pol or party thats seen as tougher on the enemy always has an edge Republicans clobbered the Democrats as soft on commies for nearly half a century but that often isnt advantage enough.
But the Bush who delivered the State of the Union was something new in the political firmament: a hot-war president for a cold-war country. Politically, the White House is absolutely correct that Americans expect Bush to focus on homeland security. Whether he can get away with giving such scant attention to the recession, however, is something else again.
It wasnt that Bush avoided the topic of jobs in his address; its just that he mentioned them without saying anything about them. He introduced the subject and veered immediately to a discussion of schools and better teachers and his alliance with Stately, Plump Ted Kennedy. He offered a cursory defense of the tax cut and energy independence. (Hot-war presidents dont stoop to mention the gazillion jobs that, according to their press releases, will be created by Arctic drilling.) He talked about pension protections. (Damn that Kenny Lay: Gives me all that money, screws up big-time, and now I gotta build some kind of goddamn welfare state.) And that was it for the economic-security platform. Clearly, by both inclination (his own) and calculation (Karl Roves), Bush believes he should be doing war stuff.
Its hard to argue with success, of course. Bushs approval rating was in the mid-80s before the speech, all of that from his stewardship of the war. In an odd sense, he has been immune from judgment on basic domestic concerns. The polling shows that about half the public blames the war for the budget deficit and the recession, though the deficit is almost entirely the result of W.s feed-the-rich tax cut. Which makes Bush the only president in modern American history who has not been held responsible for the condition of the economy at least, not yet.
Politically, this hot-war presidency is taking a leap of faith: that the American people were so seared and scared by September 11 that Bush can focus on homeland security and an anti-terrorist global campaign however low-profile those endeavors may be and, with a bit of lip service to the economy, build a majority coalition in the process. Thats certainly Karl Roves conclusion, and absent a deeper recession or smarter Democrats, he may, in the short run, be right.
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