Tale of Two Presidents

The State of the Union was a tale of two presidents. One was gracious about his opponents, seeking common ground for the sake of the nation's future. The other accused his critics of being isolationists, pacifists, protectionists and unpatriotic. One wanted the downfall of tyrants and dictators; the other wanted the downfall or transformation of elected governments in Iran and the Palestinian territories. One wanted to extend tax cuts; the other wanted to cut deficits. One was determined to promote America as the world leader in science; the other was determined to put strict limits on human-embryo research--restrictions that other countries have rejected. Both presidents are of course one and the same: the often inspirational, often self-contradicting, George W. Bush. Democrats frequently mistake this split personality as some kind of giant game of bait-and-switch. But it's more accurate to think of it as the gap between Bush's idealistic self-image as a leader, and his realistic desire to do whatever it takes to win. Part of President Bush genuinely wants to be fiscally responsible. Another part of him sorely wants to skewer Democrats on taxes in 2008 if they try to let his tax cuts expire. Part of President Bush genuinely wants to lead a harmonious and united nation in the long battle against Islamist terrorists. Another part of him sorely wants to silence his Democratic critics and portray them as weaklings in November. Judging by their dozy response, the Democrats are ready to play their part. Many House Democrats on Tuesday could barely focus while their rival-in-chief was delivering his script for unseating them in the fall. Near the back of the chamber, Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Dem from New York, worked on a crossword puzzle as Bush made his way to the podium. Once Bush was on stage, Weiner and several of his colleagues broke out their BlackBerrys and spent most of the speech scrolling through e-mails and muttering to each other under their breaths, prompting Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to hush them at one point. Then again, the president's own party was hardly electrifying on Tuesday. When Bush made his rallying cry for fiscal discipline, his GOP troops offered only polite applause. Even the House leadership contenders John Boehner and John Shadegg, who have campaigned on the issue, failed to rise from their seats. There was similarly polite applause to Bush's call for a guest-worker program. In stark contrast, the first person to jump out of his seat at the very mention of ethical standards was one Bob Ney. The Ohio congressman stepped down from his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee just two weeks ago because of his relationship with the indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Whether his party is in top form or not, Bush is returning to familiar ground in this election year. It's not just the substance of energy independence or health savings accounts. It's the style of his politics. In two election cycles, President Bush's combination of soaring rhetoric and street-fighting politics has resulted in victory at the polls. Now President Bush will use the same strategy to fight the 2006 elections--by calling for bipartisan support for the war on terror, while kneecapping Democrats as defeatist simpletons. It seems to be working already. Many Democrats listening to Bush's address on Tuesday felt compelled to applaud his patriotism at several points, even when he was hammering them on Iraq. "To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of goodwill and respect for one another," Bush said early on, "and I will do my part." He did his part a little later by burying Jack Murtha, the hawkish House Democrat who called for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. "There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure," Bush declared, without naming anyone in the audience directly. How Democrats respond is the critical test of whether they are ready to win an election. Judging by their official response, delivered by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, they would prefer to avoid almost all talk of foreign affairs. However, that choice may not be theirs, since the president has the bully pulpit and the country clearly remains at war. Instead, their best hope lies in exploiting the contradictions of Bush's approach. The president's strategy of defeating terrorism with democracy faces fundamental challenges in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iran. In all three places, terrorists and militants have attracted more popular support, not less, through the ballot box. Democrats have a rare opening to be more hawkish than Bush on terrorism. They could argue, like Jordan, that the current goal must be to fight militants and terrorists--not to move towards more democracy. They could argue, like Bush himself in 2000, that the job of the U.S. military is to win war, not build nations. Bush's current analysis of terrorism suggests he is unclear about what drives his mortal enemies or how best to kill them. Early on, the president suggested that terrorism was the result of a lack of democracy. "Dictatorships shelter terrorists, and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction," he explained. Those dictatorships would obviously not include Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, whose governments are happy to shoot up Al Qaeda suspects. Just seven sentences later, it turns out that terrorists aren't fighting dictators--they are fighting democracies. "No one can deny the success of freedom, but some men rage and fight against it," he said. Unlike the men of Hamas, of course, who seem to be enjoying freedom. The president lumped together terrorists in Beslan, London and Iraq, as if they were the same. Yet the only common factor, apart from their bloodlust, is the religion of those involved. Chechen terrorists are hardly fighting against democratic government in their republic. The London bombers, in contrast, were British citizens, not Saudis hankering after the vote. This is more than just muddled thinking. It's a sign that five years in office have left the White House straining under the weight of its own contradictions. Iraq was never meant to be a war about terrorists or democracy. It was a war launched to disarm a dictator with weapons of mass destruction. By lumping the two together out of political necessity, the White House seems to have lost focus on the single goal that voters really care about: killing off Al Qaeda. At least one side of President Bush understood that in 2001. The other side is trying to make sense of what happened since.