For the last six years, George W. Bush has treated Congress the way he treats the United Nations, the press, and most of his own Cabinet secretaries—as an unavoidable (and entirely useless) irritant. Despite running for president in 2000 on the strength of his ability to forge compromise with the Democratic-controlled legislature in Texas when he was governor, he has for the better part of six years treated the people's representatives with barely veiled contempt. Once established in the White House, Bush "the Uniter" quickly became Bush "the Decider." In the Bush Constitution, as opposed to the U.S. Constitution, the executive "leads" and the judiciary "defers." The legislature's role is to swiftly grant the president what he demands.
Before last night, this imperious attitude resounded through all Bush's speeches to Congress. His previous State of the Union addresses each represented attempts—more successful than not in the first term, more unsuccessful than not in the second—to impose his will on Washington and the world. The administration's attitude toward congressional challenge was perhaps best summed up by Dick Cheney's famous suggestion to Pat Leahy of Vermont on the Senate floor: "Fuck yourself."
It would be foolhardy to think that Bush's true feelings have changed. Until the day he leaves office, he will continue to regard members of Congress as meddlesome Lilliputians trying to tie him down. But the reality is that they have tied him down. Faced with an assertive and so far remarkably effective Democratic Congress—and with no supportive public to turn to—Bush has to suppress his arrogant and bullying style as best he can. He is in no position any longer to dictate terms.
This grudging recognition of reality is the key to last night's speech. It explains the overall limpness; the elaborate courtesies offered to Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the misty, conciliatory tone ("We can work through our differences and achieve big things. … Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on—as long as we are willing to cross that aisle"); the lack of Bush's familiar taunting and demagoguery; the offer to include members of Congress in a "special advisory council" to help him figure out this whole terrorism thing; and even Bush's almost plaintive request to give his new Iraq strategy a chance to work.
It also explains the lack of tax cuts or new conservative domestic-policy proposals, and the series of curiously moderate-sounding ideas Bush put forward last night. The most interesting of these was his leaked-in-advance health-care plan. Bush proposed that the most-expensive employer-provided health-care plans become taxable over the threshold of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families. In part with the money raised by this tax increase—and that is precisely what it is—Bush would extend deductibility of health insurance to families and individuals who buy it on their own, up to the same amounts. He also offered federal aid (of some costless sort) to states attempting to provide universal coverage, an encouraging fad among Republican as well as Democratic governors.
While this plan falls far short of universal coverage, it is a plausible and progressive step. Capping the deductibility of insurance would help to control health-care costs, because the existing unbounded tax subsidy encourages people to buy more treatment than they really need. Extending this benefit to individuals who don't get coverage at work will help the uninsured afford insurance, especially if the tax deduction evolves into a tax credit. Were the source different, Democrats might well embrace such a proposal instead of excoriating it.
The same is true of Bush's energy proposal, which included for the first time an explicit target for reductions in gas consumption (20 percent in 10 years), plus a push toward alternative fuels, and what is his first-ever endorsement of fuel-economy standards for cars. On immigration, too, Bush gave Democrats cover, and angered Republicans with his support for a robust "guest worker" system and his call to steer a middle path between "animosity" and "amnesty."
Bush's new tone comes easily to him because it is one he has used before—in the 2000 campaign, and in the early months of his presidency, when he struck a deal with Ted Kennedy and the Democrats on his No Child Left Behind education bill. He also finds a model for his new stance in a man he despises—Bill Clinton, in the final, post-impeachment phase of his presidency. Bush hopes to emulate the way Clinton avoided becoming a lame duck after many wrote him off by thinking smaller, coming up with creative solutions, and working with his congressional opponents.
But Bush's situation is nothing like Clinton's. The embarrassment he faces is similarly of his own making, but it is not the sort of that can be compartmentalized away. Bush lacks Clinton's patience, policy acumen, and ability to cast a temporary spell over his political enemies. Even if Bush can sustain his new tone into next week, Democrats are not inclined to respond in kind. In his official response, Sen. James Webb of Virginia said that if Bush won't follow, Democrats can govern without him because they represent the people's will.
But if only because he is stubborn and wields a veto pen, Bush remains central to the question of what Congress can accomplish over the next two years. Democrats, no less than Republicans, now face the quandary of how to deal with the problem of a ruined president. Should they work with Bush in pursuit of legislative accomplishments for which he would share the credit? Or hold out for his utter subjugation and defeat?