Thursday, January 25, 2007

President Bush’s State of the Union speech surprised and pleased much of his conservative base by appealing as much to them as to the new Democratic majority in Congress.

“He did not pander to the Democrats and independents as some thought he would,” said New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett, a conservative Republican who told The Washington Times that his House colleagues expressed a similar assessment.

Conservative Republicans have grown increasingly tough and open in their criticism of Mr. Bush on everything from immigration and the Iraq war to spending and government intrusiveness — to the point in some cases of open rebellion. But Tuesday night he somehow managed to cap that dyspepsia, at least for the moment, and draw praise from his own right wing.

Pat Toomey, president of the influential Club for Growth, saw the speech as a largely successful attempt to reach out to Democrats and independents without alienating Republicans.

“A good example was health care, which was the central focus of his policy,” Mr. Toomey said. “His message will appeal to voters, the middle class, Democrats and Republicans alike, because it eliminates an inequity in the tax code that has prevented the evolution of consumer-based — as distinct from employer-provided — health care.”

“So we are every happy with his proposal, which will lower costs and provide more choice for consumers,” said Mr. Toomey. “Democrats ought to like it, but I very much wonder if they to give the president any kind of victory and I am afraid they would rather have this issue to use against Republicans in the 2008 elections.”

Some religious conservatives, however, stopped just short of saying the president pandered to the Democrats in Congress.

“The top issues primarily interested the new majority,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “While some of these issues have merit, the president went silent on key social issues that many Americans care deeply about. The overarching concern is that the administration is yielding its ability to influence the public discussion to the liberal leadership of the new congressional majority.”

However, with his presidency now in its final two years, Mr. Bush must fight to maintain his influence.

“Bush is already a lame-duck president, but he is trying his best not to be considered a ‘dead duck’ president — with no power or influence at all,” said Merrill Matthews, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Innovation. “He was, in essence, saying, ‘I am still relevant.’ Bill Clinton made that claim verbally after the Republican victory in 1994. Bush is doing that by proposing several ideas — many of them good and some of them more aligned with moderates or the left.”

Because last year’s election undermined Mr. Bush’s political power to push his agenda, he is moving to “idea power,” Mr. Matthews said. “Conservatives have always thought that ideas are the real driving force behind change,” he said.

As for what, if anything, the president’s sixth State of the Union will accomplish, Tom Kilgannon, president of Oliver North’s Freedom Alliance, said, “It won’t advance much that conservatives care about.”

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