GEORGE BUSH has probably spent less time thinking about electoral politics over the past four months than any president has over a comparable period since the end of World War II. And what is the result of this benign neglect? The Republican party is, for the moment, in fantastic political shape.
-The president's approval rating remains above 80 percent. There have been several "rally round the flag" surges in presidential popularity since Pearl Harbor, and usually the ratings start drifting downward after around seven weeks. Bush's surge, so far, has lasted three times as long. That's astounding.
-Voters trust Republicans more than Democrats on issue after issue. A year ago, the issue map looked poisonous for the GOP. Now 49 percent of Americans say the Republicans will do a better job of keeping America prosperous, against only 32 percent who say the Democrats will. According to a Battleground Poll, voters prefer Republicans on foreign affairs by 57 percent to 26 percent. They think Republicans are better equipped to fight terrorism by 60 percent to 15percent. Republicans and Democrats are trusted equally to improve education, an issue Democrats have traditionally dominated.
-Republicans have a 5-point lead when voters are asked which party they would like to see control Congress after the next election.
-According to this most recent Battleground Poll, more people identify themselves as Republicans than Democrats, by 40 percent to 35 percent. The Ipsos-Reid survey found a similar trend toward the Republicans, though from a different starting point. According to Ipsos-Reid, Democrats had a 9-point advantage in party ID before September 11, but have only a one-point advantage now.
All this could be temporary, a simple war effect. Bush benefits because this is that rare war in which women are more hawkish than men. He benefits also from the education bill he passed with Ted Kennedy, which is quite popular (no matter how little conservatives think of it). And, it should be said, none of this guarantees future electoral success. In 1942, after all, FDR was riding a war wave, and he still lost big in the congressional elections.
Yet, despite all these caveats, this is clearly a remarkable political moment. At the very least, it presents a huge opportunity to solidify these gains and create a governing Republican majority. And in his State of the Union address Bush demonstrated that he understands, or at least has stumbled into, exactly how to do it.
DIVIDE the State of the Union speech into three sections. The first was the "axis of evil" section. The second was the domestic policy section. The third was the citizenship/ USA Freedom Corps section. That middle part was orthodox Republicanism circa 1999. The ideas are familiar: tax cuts, free trade, welfare reform, patients' bill of rights. If you take that section and compare it to Dick Gephardt's response (which, despite some shadings, was a pretty orthodox Democratic statement of principles), you have a good summary of the Republican vs. Democratic debate over the past ten years. This is the debate that led to tied elections in 1998 and 2000 and to World War I-style partisan trench warfare in Washington, featuring lots of bile but very little movement.
But in the first and final thirds of his State of the Union speech, Bush expanded the Republican message and showed the way toward a new majority. In those sections Bush echoed precisely the aggressive foreign policy and patriotic national service themes that John McCain struck in the 2000 primary season, and which appealed so powerfully to independents.
During the campaign McCain called for rogue-state rollback--toppling regimes such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. He called for an ambitious mission to spread democracy around the globe. He embraced nation-building. Now Bush is for those things too. Domestically, McCain issued a summons to national service, asking young people to serve a call larger than self-interest. That was the language Bush used in the State of the Union in announcing his expansion of AmeriCorps. Bush's program is smaller and slightly more liberal than the McCain-Bayh proposal now before the Senate. Bush would expand the Peace Corps, and his plan has no military component, whereas McCain-Bayh has a large military component and would make national service more like serving in the Army. Still, Bush has gone some way toward melding McCain's calls for national service with his own calls for compassionate conservatism.
There's a reason the former McCainiacs were exhilarated by the State of the Union address--especially the foreign policy part--whereas some other conservatives, such as the globally cautious Robert Novak, appeared less so. Politically the possibility is this: If you take the traditional Bush Red America base, and you take the regions where McCain did best, in the suburbs of the coasts and of the upper Midwest, then meld those two voting blocs into a single coalition, Bingo! You've got your governing majority.
Now, if this strategy is going to succeed, the Bush strategists must first convince themselves that this is not what they are doing. A couple of members of the administration would rather lose the next election than admit that they are borrowing themes from the Arizona showboat. Nonetheless, the events of September 11 have shaken the political landscape and so made it possible for the Bushian lion to lie down with the McCainiac lamb (or vice versa)--at least on a policy level, if not on a personal level.
President Bush has broken the libertarian grip on the GOP. (Not only did he call for a grand foreign policy mission, he called for expanding Head Start and liberalizing welfare benefits for immigrants.) But there is still some way to go if he is to win over the independent voters from Purple America (the ones who are halfway between Red and Blue). The final McCainiac initiatives that Bush has not yet co-opted have to do with reform.
Bush has already indicated he will sign the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill if it should come to his desk. But an idea that would have a much more positive effect on the country is capital market reform. Enron has the Bush administration acting defensively, but it could spur a great conservative reform agenda that draws on both McCainiac and Bushian impulses. This would involve pushing through accounting and financial disclosure regulations that would make it possible for small stockholders and entrepreneurs to have faith that they can compete fairly in the financial markets. Such reforms, starting with the ones Arthur Levitt has proposed, would give the markets the credibility that is a prerequisite if Social Security privatization is ever to see the light of day.
If the Bush administration ever wends its way to a reform agenda, if it champions a national service initiative that has both military and faith-based components, if, most important, it prosecutes the war against the axis of evil, then President Bush and his aides will not only have done great things for America, they will have laid the groundwork for a governing Republican majority. And George Bush will have established himself, with FDR and Reagan, as one of the great transformational presidents of the age.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.