BUSH TRANSFIGURED

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 29 2002 @ 10:35pm

The development of Bush Republicanism took another step in this speech. It was in many ways a masterly transition. The president started soberly, talking, as he should have, about by far the most urgent task in front of us: the war on terrorism. Listening and looking at him, I felt even more securely than in the past, that he gets it. He understands that the danger is still enormous; that the risks still huge; the price of failure unthinkable. We needed to be reminded. Even those of us most intent on a thorough war on terror had felt our concentration lapse; our focus blur. Bush sharpened it – and us – again. I was struck by the phrase, ‘I will not wait on events.’ It was perhaps an unintentional rebuke to his predecessor and to his pre-9/11 self. But it was reassuring nonetheless. Also surprising and perhaps important: Iran was mentioned before Iraq. For those of you who remember, this is a re-emphasis I’ve been arguing for for a while. It was extremely encouraging to see it in the speech. That Iran-sponsored boat full of weapons for the PLO was arguably the dumbest initiative those clerical thugs have perpetrated in a very long time. This new emphasis also lies behind, I think, the new tough line with the Palestinians. An Iranian-backed client state on the West Bank has to be avoided. So we may have to deal with Iran if we are ever going to forge some kind of peace in Palestine. The president is obviously spending a lot of time with Paul Wolfowitz.

PULLING A CLINTON: Domestically, the president did something even sharper. He did to the Democrats what Clinton did to the Republicans. He co-opted large amounts of their agenda – some of it disingenuously, some of it genuinely. He tackled the gender gap masterfully. He did it visually by seeming to give nods to more women than men – introducing the Afghan woman minister, the grieving Spann widow, the heroic female flight attendants, the First Lady, and others. And he did so rhetorically, describing respect for women, for example, as a non-negotiable American principle. His outreach to Ted Kennedy will resonate with moderates; his emphasis on education neutralizes a strong Democratic issue; his calls for more spending on domestic programs, like the extension of unemployment benefits and a modest prescription drug program, can only further increase his bipartisan appeal. But where he went beyond Clinton was in not just co-opting the opposition’s most popular programs, but in also appealing to the McCain-Perot middle. He did this by Kennedy-esque calls for service to country, for volunteerism, and putting goals other than self at the center of our lives. I liked his comparison between two cultures: that of “If it feels good, do it,” and “Let’s Roll.” Notice that the sixties have not been replaced by some moralizing or constrictive social conservatism – but by a more neutral, uplifting spirit of action and service, a problem-solving ethic that is practical but also moral, and deeply American.

IN GOD HE TRUSTS: I can see how David Brooks will be heartened by this speech. It has a certain amount of TR in it; and it certainly moves distinctively away from Reaganite skepticism of government. All that is to the good. Skepticism of government and respect for government are two central conservative moods. In this time of national emergency, conservatives should emphasize the latter. But I was also struck by Bush’s appeal to the religious right. He appealed to their most important contribution to the debate – not their stigmatization of others, but their insistence on a moral center to our public life. Bush restated again and again the principle of the reality of evil. And he said at one point that we can only defeat evil with God on our side. This invocation of God – in a non-routine or formulaic way – was very striking. It will have resonated with many religious people in the country, but especially with the most devout. This faith and its surety in Bush will be enough to keep the social conservatives in his coalition, while allowing him to expand government in small but critical ways and broaden the Republican tent even wider. I’m sure with reflection, I’ll think of some caveats about this speech, but right now, I can’t see how he went wrong. I’d say his ratings would go up. But then, they can hardly go any higher. Perhaps the one thing to take from this speech is the most important one. The president has not let down his guard against the enemy. However great the temptation, neither should we.