In the 48 hours before George W. Bush took the podium to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, the presenter for ABC news was blown up in his flatbed truck by a roadside device near Baghdad, Martin Luther King Jr’s widow died, former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay went on trial for accounting chicanery allegedly committed by his company back when it was President Bush’s largest single campaign contributor, Alan Greenspan spent his last day at the Fed, Judge Samuel Alito spent his first day on the Supreme Court and the radical Islamists of Hamas started their first week as the democratically elected rulers of Palestine.
Whatever poll you check, about 60 per cent of Americans say their country is on the ‘wrong track’. So the blitheness with which Republicans anticipated this week’s speech was breathtaking. This is one of those rare moments in recent US history when Americans consider the Republicans (by 36–22 per cent) the party of special interests and corruption. When a friendly reporter asked Senate majority leader Bill Frist how the President would parry this view, Frist was blasé. The Democrats were using this corruption talk, he said, ‘Because they don’t have any ideas like we are going to hear from the President tonight. They don’t have any of the convictions.’ Mr Frist, a former Rhodes scholar, was putting ‘ideas’ and ‘convictions’ on the same footing. If you can’t figure out what you think, then at least you can stick tenaciously to what you feel. This has always been Mr Bush’s approach.
For a politician it is not a bad one. It won him some real political momentum on Tuesday night. At times his speech was brutally frank in the face of hostile public opinion: ‘We hear claims that immigrants are somehow bad for the economy, even though this country could not function without them.’ At times it was a dazzling piece of bamboozlement, as when Mr Bush sidestepped Republican corruption by presenting it in tandem with gay weddings, the only Democratic innovation less popular than Republican lobbying. ‘Many Americans, especially parents,’ he said, ‘are concerned about unethical conduct by public officials, and discouraged by activist courts that try to redefine marriage.’
Yet his speech was coherent. American leadership in the battle for democracy was its centrepiece. And everything — not just the war in Iraq — fitted neatly around it. Bush praised the progress of ‘the great people of Egypt’ and the (unmodified) ‘Palestinian people’ in this regard. He also announced a search for alternative energy sources that would, he hoped, cut American dependence on Middle Eastern oil imports by 75 per cent before 2025, through zero-emission coal, wind farming, hydrogen automobiles, nuclear power and ethanol. Here, the country’s national security needs have dovetailed with campaigning needs. Year after year for decades, presidential candidates have proclaimed the vital need for corn-based ethanol in Iowa, an early primary state that happens to be one of the country’s largest corn producers. One suspects that only the lateness of the Wisconsin primary has prevented candidates from claiming that cars can run on cheese.
Then Mr Bush rolled right over the foes of a National Security Agency plan to tap international calls: ‘If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qa’eda, we want to know about it — because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.’ If there are people inside the Democratic party who are considering pursuing the matter further, their career in elective politics will be short.
One can’t escape the conclusion that the politics of conviction helps the President not because his own convictions are so good but because those of his opponents are so bad. The Democrats’ failure to win the public trust on ‘values’, Iraq and the Supreme Court have left them stewing in embitterment.
To give the party response to the President, Democrats chose Tim Kaine, a political novice with a ma