While jumping up on cue to cheer during the speech and delivering rave reviews afterward in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, conservative members of Congress were deeply disappointed by George W. Bush Tuesday night. It was not merely that the president abandoned past domestic goals. He appeared to be moving toward bigger government.
The consensus on the Right was that President Bush’s fifth State of the Union Address was his worst. Republican congressmen agreed privately that he was most effective at the beginning with his familiar message of why U.S. forces cannot abandon Iraq. The problem for these lawmakers was the rest of the 51-minute presentation, which was filled with unpleasant surprises.
With polls showing the president’s approval rating persistently anemic (as low as 39 percent), the speech aimed at a kinder, gentler Bush. But beyond atmospherics, the policy initiatives staked out new directions in the sixth year of his presidency that raised questions. Is this the real George W. Bush? Is he really his true father’s son and not Ronald Reagan’s?
The president seemed more comfortable with his foreign policy declarations than with what followed, but even here he did not live up to expectations. Pre-speech tips from White House aides and from Bush himself had pointed to laying down the law to the Iranian regime (step back from nuclear arms) and the Hamas party in Palestine (recognize Israel). He did so, but not with the force and specificity promised.
As expected, Bush backed away from what a year earlier were labeled as the two great initiatives of his second term. He complained that "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security," unintentionally setting off self-congratulatory celebration by Democrats on the floor. But Bush made no promises about trying to revive his personal accounts. The president did not even give the comprehensive tax reform the courtesy of a death notice. It went unmentioned and apparently unmourned.
Prior to the speech, one conservative Republican senator fantasized about Bush turning to Democrats and calling on them to pass permanent tax cuts and then turning to Republicans and calling on them to cut spending. He did call for permanent tax cuts and for control over spending, but so briefly and undramatically that the president’s demands lost their impact.
However, what bothered conservatives most about Tuesday night’s performance was not what the president failed to do but what he actually did. The pre-speech public relations drumbeat had promised the president would deliver a new energy initiative to Americans angry about the price of gasoline. Indeed, Bush deplored that "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world" and promised to end "our dependence on Middle Eastern oil." It was how he would accomplish this that stunned conservatives.
The president proposed that the government preside over a wide array of non-petroleum energy options. That has all the characteristics of an "industrial policy," with the federal government picking winners and losers. While violating the Republican Party’s free market philosophy, this is a course with a lengthy pedigree of failure all over the world.
The same State of the Union address that neglected the Republican goal of reforming the tax system called for an American Competitiveness Initiative that also promises an extension of growing, intrusive government. That would expand still more the federal role in education. Instead of shrinking the federal government, Bush wants to grow it.
None of this change in direction will lead to a kinder, gentler Democratic Party in Congress. Tuesday night’s response by newly elected Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, while far more partisan than the president’s speech, was relatively moderate and restrained. But it will not be Kaine with whom Bush must deal in this election. It is the fiercely partisan Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi and George Miller.
Bush’s softer rhetoric can be stiffened as this year moves toward the serious business of midterm elections. But what happens to the blueprint for big government laid out by President Bush Tuesday night? That will not be easy to reverse.