50 Plus One

Get ready for the divider, not the uniter, when President Bush delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday to a packed House chamber. It will be a ceremonial evening, with Chief Justice John Roberts likely to be joined by newly confirmed Associate Justice Samuel Alito in the front row to look up admiringly at the man who made their careers.

After half the Senate Democrats voted to confirm Roberts, Bush figured he could lose a couple dozen votes and still get a conservative justice confirmed. Alito will be lucky to get three of the 45 Senate Democrats voting for him. To Bush's way of thinking, that's a bigger victory than the 22 Democratic votes Roberts received. Bush is a 50-plus-1 president; he's not interested in winning bipartisan support for anything.

Building on that attitude in the State of the Union Message, Bush will mount a strong and passionate defense of his foreign policy and surveillance program, going directly at the Democrats and daring them to defy him. He'll embrace new rules on lobbying and chastise Congress, donning the mantle of "reformer with results" that worked during the 2000 campaign, getting ahead of the scandal, just like he did with Enron when he abandoned his good friend Ken Lay and championed corporate reform.

But this is a more cynical time, and the fancy footwork may not work. The media are pressing for a fuller disclosure of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's contacts at the White House, and that grip-and-grin photo of Abramoff with Bush is bound to be published soon. Republicans along with Democrats are uneasy about the government's unauthorized eavesdropping of American citizens. And the electoral victory in this week's Palestinian election of Hamas, a terrorist organization that advocates the destruction of Israel, is a timely reminder of the downside of spreading democracy in the Middle East.

Bush's SOTU speech is his swan song to rally support for an unpopular war and a pallid domestic agenda. Still, the evening will be his. The Democrats can't compete with the pageantry that surrounds a SOTU address, but there are welcome signs that the Democratic Party is coming to life. "I'm the designated driver of these guys riding their power trips and getting intoxicated," says Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, explaining that because he's not running for president, his role as a member of the Senate tax-writing committee is to provide solid policy advice to his fellow Democrats. His big idea is the Fair Flat Tax of 2005, which would tax all income from whatever source at the same rate, close thousands of loopholes, and simplify everybody's tax return into a one-page form.

Wyden is best known for his leadership on end-of-life issues and defending Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, which was upheld last week by the Supreme Court. But he was elected as a pro-business Democrat and has long been interested in tax reform. "When a reporter calls me up and says, 'I want to write on domestic initiatives,' I tell them, 'You start the discussion on tax simplification and everybody starts clapping'." It's been 20 years since the last tax overhaul, when then Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley worked with the Reagan administration to slash the tax rates and close loopholes. Wyden conferred with Bradley, who told him the case for reform is even stronger now than it was in 1986 because globalization has tightened the squeeze on the middle class.

Wyden would reduce the current six tax rates to three--15, 25 and 35--and get rid of "all the glop," the 17,000 special-interest provisions added since '86. He wouldn't raise the top rate, which should calm Republican fears about class warfare, and he would preserve popular deductions like home-mortgage interest and charitable contributions. When Wyden calls some of his wealthier constituents to tell them he wants the same treatment for wages and investment income, "You can hear the pause at the other end of the line." After he explains that it's not really fair to tax unearned income from investments and stocks at a lower rate than hard-earned wages, "There's another long pause before they say, 'I can't argue with that'."

Wyden's plan is good politics and good policy. Cosponsored by Illinois Democrat Rahm Emmanuel in the House, it doesn't overpromise, and it reduces the deficit by $100 billion over five years. People whose income comes mostly from capital gains would pay more, but Wyden is open to lowering the top rate a percentage point to ease their pain. Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, calls the Fair Flat Tax reform "bold and innovative" and predicts "It will be at the heart of any Democratic candidate's tax program."

Bush had intended to make tax reform a centerpiece of his second term, but he is too weakened to bring his party to any consensus. Wyden thinks his plan could attract bipartisan support. "A Republican senator told me he didn't agree with me on capital gains," Wyden told NEWSWEEK. "But he said it ought to be a requirement every 20 years to clean up the code. He laughed and said, "Then the lobbyists can come back and fill it up again."