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Bush's Salvo From the Right

January 21, 2004

It's an election year: For an incumbent president, that usually means a shift to the middle of the political spectrum. Former President Bill Clinton, running for reelection in 1996, edged rightward with his declaration that the era of big government was over. But Bush broke those expectations Tuesday. He brought forth an unapologetic conservatism. From his defiant defense of the invasion and occupation of Iraq to his unabashed push for tax cuts that create billions of dollars in deficits, Bush was unswerving.

His real accomplishment was a persuasive delivery of a good speech that sent a steady message: "I'm the boss. I'm unafraid to do what needs doing. Stick with me." And the less a listener let the facts get in the way, the more effective the speech became.

On Iraq, he focused on the removal of Saddam Hussein, which of course drew heavy applause -- but he didn't mention that U.S. weapons inspection teams have failed to find nuclear, chemical or biological weapons; their imminent threat was sold as a major reason for going to war. In last year's State of the Union speech, Bush said U.S. intelligence estimated that Hussein had materials to produce "as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent" and had "upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents."

"We will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country," Bush said Tuesday. Again, a powerful line -- but America never has and never should ask permission to defend itself. The question was whether a preemptive strike in Iraq was the best way for the U.S. to defend itself.

Beyond its constitutional requirement, Bush's State of the Union speech was the unofficial kickoff of his reelection campaign. He returned to the theme of "compassionate conservatism" that he sounded in his 2000 campaign -- only this time, he redefined it. In 2000, it meant pushing for education reforms to aid poor children. In 2004, it means more than good schools, it also means elevating the imagined threat of gay marriage to a priority worthy of a specific mention in the president's annual address, then quickly adding that everyone has "dignity and value" -- code for: Gays are people too.

How unfortunate that gang wars in urban centers or the crushing financial burdens being felt by state and local governments in fighting the war on terrorism went unmentioned in Bush's speech and thus were seen by the president as less critical to the national well-being.

There were recommendations on education, health care and prisons worth further discussion. But those issues weren't the point of Tuesday's speech. As Bush and his advisors recognize, the unexpected win by Sen. John F. Kerry in the Iowa caucuses may well portend a protracted battle among the Democratic candidates that will produce not only a seasoned contender but also a clearer, more persuasive opposition than exists now.

Bush's address was the start of what should be the most serious, substantive debate over domestic and foreign policy in 20 years. Bush offered himself as the president who slays terrorism, kills taxes and saves traditional values. While the facts of the matter may get in the way, it's a smart strategy for reelection.

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