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Dangerously Irrelevant

Despite the hype, despite the hoopla, most State of the Union speeches are duds: laundry lists of political initiatives that—even if sincerely offered—have little or no chance of becoming reality. Last week, President George W. Bush delivered his own version of the traditional dud before the first Congress of his six-year presidency to be controlled by the Democrats. Yet the Democrats’ slight balance of congressional power has little to do with their blurry vision and much to do with the nation’s growing disillusionment.

The nation today has less faith in Bush than ever. His approval rating is at a new low—as pathetic as Nixon’s was during Watergate—hovering at around 28 percent, according to some major polls. Scooter Libby, former top aide to Vice-President Dick Cheney, who is on trial for lying to investigators about who blew the cover of a CIA operative, alleges that Karl “Svengali” Rove framed him. And Senate Republicans are in the early stages of open revolt against Bush’s disastrous war, with defense hard-liner John Warner of Virginia joining a resolution that calls the increase of troops in Iraq harebrained, albeit in very polite language. All things considered, the prospects for the Texas dude rancher look grim.

Bush pulled out all the stops when he strode before Congress. He oozed snake-oil charm as he congratulated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for being the first woman in history to capture the office, the nation’s third highest. His insincerity was on full display when he morphed from his usual pose as a gun-slinging strongman into a sensitive guy bent on political cooperation. And his shysterism was front and center when he offered a series of insincere and inadequate pro-environment proposals.

Anyone doubting the inadequacies of Bush’s environmental talk should note that just hours before he spoke, the heads of 10 major corporations (including Alcoa, DuPont, and British Petroleum) urged the adoption of standards far more stringent than Bush’s to combat global warming. The chief executives called for mandatory ceilings on greenhouse-gas emissions, something Bush will not consider. It is a sad day for Republicans when a rabid, pro-business president like Bush is upstaged and outflanked by the core of his GOP constituency. It appears that it is beginning to dawn on at least some big businesses that if the planet shrivels up and dies, there will be nobody to whom they can sell their goods and services. This belated fit of enlightened self-interest is, of course, welcome. Too bad Bush doesn’t seem to understand just how much must be done—and how quickly.

Bush is less interested in the environment than he is in tapping into the growing sense among his base of militantly Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists that environmental damage and global warming pose threats of biblical proportions. Bush’s inner Rove always tells him to play to his base, to shore up support among his most faithful. He has been moving in this direction for about two years, longer than most people realize. And his tepid embrace of a green agenda more or less coincides with the point when the issue gained traction among his most conservative religious followers. Public expectations, however, are outstripping—have outstripped—Bush’s actions.

If Bush is well behind the curve on environmental issues and desires, he’s dangerously behind the eight ball when it comes to Iraq, to which he devoted almost half of his State of the Union address. He shucked. He jived. He offered the devious milquetoast sop of convening a bipartisan council on the war on terror. It is not surprising—but it is nevertheless amazing—that Bush still perpetrates the lie that the invasion of Iraq had something to do with attacking the al Qaeda network that attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11 and bombed our embassies and a naval vessel before that.

Bush is delusional and increasingly impotent. His growing political isolation and irrelevance might be welcome on domestic issues. But in matters of foreign policy and the war in Iraq, he enjoys vast powers. His dictator-like tendencies did not spring out of thin air. Congress for generations set dangerous precedents by abrogating its authority and responsibility for policing the president’s ability to wage war. But once any president has troops on the ground in a foreign land, the ability to check his will, to reverse his course, to make things right—to the extent to which they can be righted without disaster of some sort—is limited.

Our president seems hell-bent on stretching those limits even further than Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did in Vietnam. If Bush’s increase of 21,500 troops in Iraq fails, as in all probability it sadly and tragically will, the stage will be set for a nasty and divisive confrontation with Congress this fall—if not earlier. And if the past is any guide, as Bush slides into even further irrelevance, he will grow all the more dangerous.

—By Editors of the Boston Phoenix

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