The Washington Times

It looks like an answer is beginning to emerge to the question of the Bush domestic agenda for the remainder of his term: There isn’t going to be much of one.

The president delivers his State of the Union address tonight, and perhaps this will indeed be an occasion at which Mr. Bush offers a bold domestic initiative. If so, however, he’s had all of Washington thoroughly hoodwinked through the run-up. The president’s initiatives are expected to be overwhelmingly war-related, and the budget information the White House has been releasing calls for substantial increases in defense spending and homeland security, with not much else.

I don’t expect Mr. Bush to get much credit from Democrats for restraint in the use of his wartime popularity to advance a conservative domestic agenda, something against which they have been warning him. On the other hand, if Mr. Bush is restrained on the domestic side, it will not be because of magnanimity. It will be a product of political calculation.

As I read Mr. Bush’s position on domestic matters, it is this: Although he advanced a fairly broad reform agenda during the campaign, the two things he already has, a large tax cut and an education reform bill, are about all he is likely to get at any cost he would be prepared to pay. That’s notwithstanding his wartime popularity.

For a variety of reasons, the political environment does not favor the administration. First of all, obviously, Democratic control of the Senate is a huge obstacle to Mr. Bush, especially insofar as Majority Leader Tom Daschle has indicated he expects major legislation to have the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster before he brings it to the floor. This is a huge hurdle – although Mr. Bush’s tax cut did garner 12 Democratic votes in the Senate.

But that’s not the end of Mr. Bush’s difficulties. Mr. Bush’s existing policy proposals have also run into some new obstacles. The faith-based initiative has a very serious problem thanks to the war. Obviously, those of a generally secular bent feel buttressed in their conviction that government ought not to get cozy with religion. Meanwhile, there is the delicate question of what some mosques in the United States have been up to. It’s a good question. But so much as the raising of it will distract the administration from the message that we are at war with terrorists, not Islam. What’s Mr. Bush’s upside here?

Enron has had an effect in at least two policy areas. First of all, energy policy is a very difficult subject now. The administration, in a serious political miscalculation in my view, rushed the subject onto the agenda last year, with the task force led by Dick Cheney.

Washington was nowhere near prepared for the subject politically, even in an environment of quasi-crisis (by the way, does anybody remember what that crisis was?). So the thing was in trouble from the start. Now, you’ve got the huge distraction of the task force meetings itself, with the White House refusing to release details. (Note to Mr. Cheney: Don’t prolong your agony, just get the message out there.) The energy proposal simply has to be Enron-scrubbed, and that’s going to be no fun at all.

Also, Social Security reform – anything involving private accounts – which was already going nowhere fast, is now going nowhere even faster. Two separate Enron-related issues: The structure of pension plans in general has to be addressed first. And, ahem, anybody else out there fooling around with the books? How wide is the accounting scandal?

Those are some of the biggest-ticket items. Economic stimulus? Hard as it is to imagine Congress actually missing an opportunity to “do something,” it just might be that Democrats so hate what Republicans want and Republicans so hate what Democrats want that they’d rather do nothing and fight over who gets blamed. No great loss.

Mr. Bush may decide he has to have a Medicare prescription benefit, but if so, it will probably come only at the price of letting Ted Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Committee on Things Liberal Democrats Care About Most, write it, a la the education bill Mr. Bush signed with Mr. Kennedy at his side. Toss-up.

So, there we are. On the domestic side, all this would be true war or no war. The one major initiative to get a wartime boost is defense transformation – a critical project, and one that was in trouble. Mr. Bush would have had a fairly easy time politically with a major defense budget increase, since Washington was gearing up for that regardless of who won the 2000 election. But that doesn’t mean the boost would come with needed reforms. Turns out that the best time for a military to transform itself is while fighting.

It’s quite possible, in short, that the Bush first-term domestic agenda is over, and his achievement consists of the tax cut. Oh well. There’s plenty else to do for the sake of security, not only abroad but also at home. Mr. Bush will be short of neither opportunity nor challenges.