Washington's conventional wisdom, which often is the wishful thinking in its media culture, is that George W. Bush's presidency is floundering. But as he passes the six-month mark, only one eighth of the way through his term, his serenity seems grounded in some favorable developments.
The two most important votes Congress will cast this year have gone as Bush wished and the media did not. One passed his tax cut. The other killed campaign-finance reform--the plan for government rationing of the political speech of everyone except the media.
A Washington wit called the defeat of that reform in the House of Representatives a victory for Laura Bush's campaign to promote reading. John McCain's threat to disrupt the Senate unless it acted on his bill, and Bush's refusal to say he would veto it, forced House members to actually read the legislation. Twice before they had passed it, confident that the Senate would kill it. Suddenly their vote was more serious than a genuflection toward the pro-reform editorial writers in their hometown newspapers.
This year's defeat should let the air out of a reform movement that is almost all air. Public interest in the issue is negligible. It is McCain's hobbyhorse, which he rode to swift defeat in the primaries. The failure of the almost entirely Washington-based and media-driven campaign for reform has spared Bush the necessity of either signing a bill with provisions he has hitherto described as unconstitutional, or spending political capital on a veto of a measure beloved by people who buy ink by the barrel--editorial writers.
His most important defense and foreign-policy initiative--missile defense--has benefited from the successful test of an interceptor high over the Pacific Ocean. This instance of "a bullet hitting a bullet," each traveling at 4.5 miles per second, came shortly after an array of leading Democrats reaffirmed as party orthodoxy the guess that missile defense is technologically impossible. Imagine what a fuss such people would have made about the early misadventures of the technologies of steamships, bridges, railroads, automobiles, airplanes, vaccines.
Democrats also reaffirmed the principle that U.S. security and international stability are best served by the nation's forever remaining completely vulnerable to ballistic-missile attacks. This may define the most pressing argument of the remainder of this decade.
The less-than-pressing nature of the current domestic agenda of Bush's adversaries is writ large in the argument over the patient's bill of rights. If the most important question of health-care policy is who can sue whom, where and for how much, then there is no especially important question.
Bush should be thankful for the difficulties he is having advancing his energy program, because of the primary reason for those difficulties: there is no serious energy crisis. Not even as Americans, with their low pain threshold, understand a serious crisis--gasoline that, although abundant, is not as cheap as it was 20 years ago. Which gasoline now is, having declined in cost for eight consecutive weeks. The price of natural gas is down two thirds from earlier this year. So until--but only until--there is a price spike at gasoline pumps, it will be safe for politicians to polish their environmental credentials by opposing drilling in places like the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Meanwhile, with the OPEC cartel curtailing production for the third time this year in order to increase prices, energy policy should partly be foreign policy. Irwin Stelzer, an expert in oil markets, notes that Kuwait possesses about 10 percent of the world's proven reserves of oil but accounts for just 3 percent of output. We might, Stelzer says, relate our support for Kuwait's defense to the country's level of output. Saudi Arabia, like Kuwait, could produce at current levels from proven reserves for 100 years and could easily expand proven reserves. The Saudi regime, like Kuwait's, survives because of U.S. defense policies.
In this summer driving season, Americans are undeterred by gasoline prices. In fact, many are driving to avoid the delays and congestion increasingly associated with air travel. Not that demand for energy is insensitive to price. Consider California, where energy doomsday has turned out to be not all it was cracked up to be.
George's at the Cove, a La Jolla restaurant, jauntily offers a high-octane martini called a Rolling Blackout. But the real things--rolling electricity blackouts--have subsided. In fact, the state suddenly is awash in surplus electricity, which it is selling, at a loss, in a glutted market.
The state's mismanagement of energy policy means that Californians, and even more so their government, will have less disposable income than they would have had if they had had more sensible energy deregulation. However, higher electricity prices have produced quick and substantial conservation by consumers, which is the essence of Bush's energy policy in action. And through it all, California, which also has been hit hard by carnage among the dot-coms and other tech enterprises, had only 5.1 percent unemployment in June and still continues to dodge a recession.
In the economy as a whole, corporate profits have been shrinking, but that is partly because wages are rising, which is one reason that consumers--whose spending constitutes two thirds of America's economic activity and whose confidence rose in June--have continued to spend, cushioning the effects of a slowdown in investment. Unemployment (4.5 percent) remains low by historical standards, and if, as some analysts expect, by the end of the year it peaks at 5 percent, that was, just a decade ago, defined as full employment.
About 40 percent of working Americans work even when they are ostensibly at play: during their vacations they are in daily contact with their offices, by e-mail from their cabins, by cell phones from their canoes. This hum of activity may scare away the trout, but what it means for the president is that America is working.