According to advance reports, George Bush will use tonight's State of the Union speech to portray himself as a visionary leader who stands above the political fray. But that act is losing its effectiveness. Mr. Bush's relentless partisanship has depleted much of the immense good will he enjoyed after 9/11. He is still adored by his base, but he is deeply distrusted by much of the nation.
Mr. Bush may not understand this; indeed, he still seems to think that he's another Lincoln or F.D.R. "No president has done more for human rights than I have," he told Ken Auletta.
But his political handlers seem to have decided on a go-for-broke strategy: confuse the middle one last time, energize the base and grab enough power that the consequences don't matter.
What do I mean by confusing the middle? The striking thing about the "visionary" proposals floated in advance of the State of the Union is their transparent cynicism and lack of realism. Mr. Bush has, of course, literally promised us the Moon — and Mars, too. And the ever-deferential media have managed to keep a straight face.
But that's just the most dramatic example of an array of policy proposals that don't withstand even minimal scrutiny. Mr. Bush has already pushed through an expensive new Medicare benefit — without any visible source of financing. Reports say that tonight he'll propose additional, and even more expensive, new initiatives, like partial Social Security privatization — which all by itself would require at least $1 trillion in extra funds over the next decade. Where is all this money going to come from?
Judging from the latest CBS/New York Times Poll, these promises of something for nothing aren't likely to convince many people. It's not just that the bounce from Saddam's capture has already gone away. Unfavorable views of Mr. Bush as a person have reached record levels for his presidency. It seems fair to say that many Americans, like most of the rest of the world, simply don't trust him anymore.
But some Americans will respond to upbeat messages, no matter how unrealistic. And that may be enough for Mr. Bush, because while he poses as someone above the fray, he is continuing to solidify his base.
The most sinister example was the recess appointment of Charles Pickering Sr., with his segregationist past and questionable record on voting rights, to the federal appeals court — the day after Martin Luther King's actual birthday. Was this careless timing? Don't be silly: it was a deliberate, if subtle, gesture of sympathy with a part of the Republican coalition that never gets mentioned in public.
A less objectionable but equally calculated gesture will be Mr. Bush's demand that his tax cuts be made permanent. Realistically, this can't make any difference to the economy now, and it makes no sense, given the array of new spending plans he will simultaneously unveil. But it's a signal to the base that any seeming moderation needn't be taken seriously, and that the administration's hard-right turn will continue.
Meanwhile, the lying has already begun, with the Republican National Committee's willful misrepresentation of Wesley Clark's prewar statements. (Why are news organizations letting them get away with this?)
The question we should ask is, Where is all this leading?
Some cynical pundits think that Mr. Bush's advisers plan to leave the hard work of dealing with the mess he's made to future presidents. But I don't think that's right. I can't see how the budget can continue along its current path through a second Bush term — financial markets won't stand for it.
And what about the growing military crisis? The mess in Iraq has placed our volunteer military, a magnificent but fragile institution, under immense strain. National Guard and Reserve members find themselves effectively drafted as full-time soldiers. More than 40,000 soldiers whose enlistment terms have expired have been kept from leaving under "stop loss" orders. This can't go on for four more years.
Karl Rove and other insiders must know all this. So they must figure that once they have won the election, they will have such a complete lock on power that they can break many of their promises with impunity.
What will they do with that lock on power? Their election strategy — confuse the middle, but feed the base — suggests the answer.
Originally published in The New York Times, 1.20.04