Status Quo SOTU

Taking the editor’s chair at HUMAN EVENTS on Monday, I relished the coming State of the Union speech. Surely the president would come out strongly, proving that he and the Republicans had learned the lessons of their 2006 defeat. Those who yearn to support him then could and the strongest of terms. But no. The speech, and the Democrats’ response, showed that both parties remain ignorant of what the voters taught them last November. Though instant polls — at least the call-in poll on Fox News — showed most people said the president did well in the speech, little is likely to result from it.

For Republicans the 2006 election was a lesson on fiscal responsibility and on the need to act decisively in war. Though President Bush has never governed as a fiscal conservative, last night he promised to submit a budget proposal that would result in a balanced budget. But not now, or even next year: within five years, or three after he leaves office. Which means never. He said he’d do it without raising taxes, which brought on a standing ovation. Why did even Democrats stand and applaud? Sen. Clinton knows. She was smirking when the president said he’d balance the budget. Democrats know that unrestrained spending — especially pork-barreling — was a weapon against Republicans in 2006 they will preserve for 2008.

The president said we needed to take the pressure off the borders by establishing a guest-worker program, and that we need to resolve the status of illegal immigrants “without amnesty.” But amnesty, like balanced budgets and pork, is a slippery concept. On illegal immigration, especially, we can expect the worst.

The issue for the president — on every issue from ethanol production to the war in Iraq — comes down to a factor that has nothing to do with the Republicans’ loss in November. Six years into his presidency, George Bush has never governed according to the principals he now embraces. Had he done so, and had Congressional Republicans kept faith, Nancy Pelosi would probably not be Speaker of the House.

What the president and Sen. Webb said about the war mirrors the public’s confusion about the war. The president seeks to be clear, and fails. The Dems seek to befog their proposals, and come out much more clearly. They and many in the media choose to describe the troop surge as an “escalation” of the war, a freighted term from Vietnam days. “Escalation” was a word we saw painted on thousands of protest posters in the 1960s and 1970s and heard in all those screechy speeches by Jane Fonda, Ramsey Clark and their ilk. The Dems didn’t learn that in 2006 Americans voted for change, not for “cut and run” or even “trim and trot.” Post-election polls that showed about three out of four Americans dissatisfied with the way we’re fighting the war and that about six in ten opposed the idea of withdrawing without winning.

The president’s description of our ultimate goal (an Iraq that can defend, govern and sustain itself and be an ally in the larger war) doesn’t sound like defeating an enemy. When the president says that, it doesn’t translate into the clear sort of “we win, they lose” formula Americans expect from wartime presidents. Mr. Bush’s definition of our goal in the Middle East is still mired in the neocon idea that victory is defined by how many people we have offered a chance to embrace democracy. That has never been right before, and it isn’t now. Victory in this war means ending state sponsorship of terrorism. Without state sponsorship, terrorism isn’t an existential threat.

The president reiterated the new strategy in Iraq he told us about two weeks ago. The pressure on the Maliki government and the surge of American troops into the Baghdad area may help. The president and his team deserve a chance to make it work, but public opinion won’t support it because it’s not aimed at producing a result Americans can see and embrace. Americans reject the idea of defeat, but in the absence of a real definition of victory, the door is open for the Dems and the media to muddy the difference between it and defeat.

Listening to the president and to Sen. Webb, it was hard to hear an agenda from either party that would unify the public and create Congressional support for much of anything. Both speeches were not much more than a description of the status quo. It’s worth remembering that Ronald Reagan told us “status quo” is Latin for “the mess we’re in.” And that should be a cue to the conservatives who want to see one of their number take residence in the White House in January 2009. There is a way.

Conservatives should begin with the idea that we are more a coalition than a movement. There really is a monolith called liberalism. It brooks no deviation from its dogma, as Sen. Lieberman discovered. There is no parallel among conservatives. We are divided among neocons, paleocons, fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, military conservatives and a host of other categories which aren’t exclusive. How many categories do each of us fall into? (I do not exclude Reagan Democrats. Yes, we know. You’re still out there.) Hence our principal problem: there is a dearth of dialogue among conservative groups. And unless we have that dialogue and create the forces of unity among our disparate groups, we have no chance to do in 2008 what we did in 1980. There’s no Ronald Reagan out there to make it easy for us. We’re going to have to do this ourselves.

Conservatives, unlike liberals, have a moral compass and adhere principles. We can start by talking about how best to define them. For starters, conservatives can agree on: (1) A strong America, acting in its own interests, in foreign affairs and without waiting for the UN to give us permission. We want to define the war we’re in clearly, aim whatever it takes to defeat the enemy, and restore whatever level of pre-9-11 peace can be achieved; (2) preservation of America’s Constitution, religious freedom and culture (which means refusing to compromise on things such as illegal immigration, late-term abortion, and phony "rights" which serve to separate Americans from their responsibilities of citizenship); (3) fiscal responsibility, tax cuts and commensurate cuts in the size of government and government spending. Anyone who wishes to earn our support for 2008 should demonstrate convincingly his dedication to those principles.

These next two years should be a time of a conservative renaissance. We can’t afford to waste any of that time arguing over whose fault the 2006 debacle was. President Reagan once said it was morning in America. It can be again if we dedicate ourselves to making it so. Let’s get to it.