YOU KNOW OUR PRESIDENT IS SERIOUS when he drops his “g”s off words ending in “ing.” That’s when he’s just folks. That’s when he breaks through the formality and levels with us, American to American. That’s the tip-off that this is the line in the speech that really matters.
I counted but one dropped “g” in the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and for all his protestations of setting a new tone, of seeking bipartisanship, of being kinder and gentler, it came in the speech’s one real attack line against the Democrats. “If there are people inside our country who are talkin’ with al Qaeda,” said the president, “we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.”
So much for the kinder-and-gentler crap. That’s the line that you’ll hear from George W. Bush as the midterm elections draw nigh. He and his party stand or fall on their reputation as tough guys. It’s the only reputation they have left. The polling makes clear that Americans don’t trust them to manage the economy, or fix their health coverage, or even run the war in Iraq. Americans (a bare majority, but that’s a lot more than on any other topic) trust them only to be ruthless, overreaching sons of bitches in protecting us against terrorists. It is, as Karl Rove has all but admitted, their last line of attack against the Democrats, who’ve sounded squeamish about the National Security Agency listening in on — well, we don’t know whom they’re listening in on — without a court order. This fall, we can expect to hear little else from a president likely to be floundering yet.
That’s still pretty thin gruel for his congressional allies. Think of the program the president just outlined: What’s there to campaign on? The last half of Bush’s speech was almost Clintonian in its abundance of discrete initiatives. In Clinton’s case, all those micro-initiatives were a contrast to a Gingrich-led Republican Party that wanted to dismantle everything. In Bush’s case, they mark a retreat to the high ground of platitudinous programs, from which little will come. Clinton was also able to summon genuine enthusiasm for his mini-ideas, while there was something inescapably perfunctory about Bush’s recitation of his own domestic program tonight. Bush may be nobody’s intellectual, but absent a big idea, he’s visibly bored.
Which doesn’t leave congressional Republicans with much to campaign on. My suspicion is that those Republican incumbents particularly spooked by the prospect of defeat will seize the anti-immigrant low ground that may prove disastrous for the party’s long-term prospects with Latino voters, but which worked for Pete Wilson and may just work for some of them. What else are Republicans supposed to run on, anyway? Their performance in office? The reconstruction of New Orleans? The success of the Medicare drug benefit? The economy? The war? Their ethics?
Not to be too morbid, but consider the state of the economy. On the same day that Bush delivered his address, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the Employment Cost Index for 2005 — the best measure of changes in the total level of wages and benefits paid by employers in 2005. The index grew by 3.2 percent last year, while inflation grew by 3.4 percent. That is to say, in the middle of a recovery, with the economy growing at about 3.6 percent, wages and benefits actually declined by 0.2 percent. In the brave new economy our elites have erected, trickle-down doesn’t even trickle anymore.
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In short, there’s nothing in the president’s program the Republicans can run on except getting tough on terror and getting tough on immigrants. That may not be enough to keep the Democrats out of power this year; both houses of Congress, the House of Representatives in particular, are very much in play (not as a result of anything the Democrats have done, of course, but as the consequence of one Republican debacle after another). Desperate times breed desperate measures. Major mud impends.
MEANWHILE, CINDY SHEEHAN WAS ARRESTED in the House gallery before the president’s speech, ostensibly for wearing an offensive T-shirt, actually to thwart the possibility (well, probability) that she’d shout out a protest. As an iconic figure of anti-war protest, Sheehan has played an important role, but as a prospective primary challenger to Senator Dianne Feinstein, something that Sheehan has said she’s considering, she’s appalling.
Not that Feinstein doesn’t merit a challenge: While DiFi now voices regret for her vote for the war, she’s never yet explained why she backed Bush’s profoundly ruinous tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. (In 2001, she was one of only two Democratic senators not from red states to back the cut; in 2003, she was the only Democrat not from a red state to vote for Bush’s plan to enrich the rich.) If there were a worthy Democratic challenger who could talk about things like economic policy, Feinstein would deserve to be retired immediately to the waxworks of Larry King Live, where she so frequently guests.
But Sheehan has no background in and exhibits no aptitude for anything but anti-war protest, and even there, she increasingly decks herself with the flotsam of the nutsoid left. On Monday in Washington, she spoke at an Impeach Bush rally alongside Ramsay Clark, and last week, when she first floated the possibility of a challenge to Feinstein, she did so from the Global Forum in Hugo Chavez’s Caracas. On the same day, meanwhile, John Kerry announced he’d lead a filibuster against Samuel Alito, and did so from the annual gathering of the world’s business leaders in Davos. With victory in their grasp, is it really too much to expect of the Democrats that they wage their campaigns from America?