The Magazine

Domestic Drift

Mar 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 26 • By DAVID BROOKS, FOR THE EDITORS
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OUR COLLEAGUE John Podhoretz came to Washington recently and made an astute observation. If you travel in conservative circles, he noticed, all anybody wants to talk about is the war. But among liberals, all anybody wants to talk about is campaign finance reform and Enron. In the large scheme of things, it's the conservatives who have their priorities right. When historians look back on this period, they will not care much who bloviated for the cameras when Jeffrey Skilling appeared before this or that congressional committee, any more than we now care about the fight over the Interior Department budget of 1947. What matters now, as at the dawn of the Cold War, is how the United States carries out its global struggle with terror and the axis of evil.

Still, domestic affairs can't be entirely ignored. And when it comes to these matters, the Republican party has not exactly found its mission and its moment. Over the past few weeks, in fact, the GOP has suffered a series of defeats.

-The campaign finance reform bill surged toward passage, against Republican objections.

-The nomination of Judge Charles Pickering, the victim of a smear campaign that for too long went unrebutted, looks likely to go down to defeat.

-The Bush energy plan is being effectively blocked. Any serious energy policy must include some increase in North Slope drilling and some effort to revive nuclear power. But those measures are dying, while Democratic efforts to raise fuel efficiency standards are gaining momentum.

-The United States has adopted Dick Gephardt's trade policy. In the most intellectually indefensible move of this administration, the president slapped a 30 percent tariff on steel, which will cost more jobs than it saves, raise costs for consumers across the economy, and damage America's standing around the world by making us look like hypocrites.

-The Congress has adopted a stimulus package that on balance looks a lot more like the original Democratic packages than it does like any of the Republican packages. This is not only a policy retreat, it's also an intellectual retreat. Republicans have now embraced Keynesian notions of pump-priming. Ludicrously, they are fighting a recession that is already over, pumping bullets into a corpse.

In short, the Republicans have not been able to translate President Bush's phenomenally high approval ratings, and the Republican party's own high ratings, into any sort of domestic policy coherence or momentum.

Maybe this is inevitable. Maybe the political capital President Bush has acquired is denominated in a foreign currency and can only be spent on security and foreign affairs. But there are other possibilities.

The first is that amidst the pressure of the war, the White House has simply become inattentive to domestic matters. Why on earth did it take the White House so long to mount a defense of Charles Pickering? A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article demonstrating that many of the blacks and liberals who know Pickering best remain enthusiastically supportive of his nomination. It took the administration weeks to roll them out. If your conservative antennae are less sensitive than the New York Times's, you know you are slow off the mark.

There's another problem. The Republicans don't seem to feel a sense of urgency on domestic issues. The war is gripping. Fair enough. But is there no domestic issue that is worth getting excited about? Is there nothing worth fighting for? Republicans can be seen proposing this or that idea, but conspicuously lacking in their demeanor is any sense of fire and mission. The middle third of the State of the Union address, the domestic policy section, was almost delivered by rote.

What's needed is not only a passion injection, but a rethinking. What problems really plague the nation? Where is the nation most seriously falling short of its promise and ideals? How do the events of this war transform the domestic landscape? There has been some discussion of these matters--witness the administration's constructive embrace of AmeriCorps--but still not enough.

One jarring problem that now confronts the country is that, even while most people have rallied around America's governing institutions and have displayed a selfless commitment to the nation's cause, some groups in Washington are still firmly in pre-9/11 mode. At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last Thursday, several senators noticed that while the national mood is elevated, the judicial confirmation process is still in the gutter. President Bush promised to change the tone in Washington. Here's a place to do that.