State of the Union: At home

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A little more than half of the State of the Union was devoted to domestic issues. Here Bush seemed to be trying to change the conversation. Or start a conversation: Our current politics seems more like two sides shouting at each other than like a civil conversation. Bush for the most part avoided issues thatwhich divide Congress sharply along partisan lines.

Not completely: He did call for making tax cuts permanent and for expansion of health savings accounts. On these Democrats will be pretty solidly opposed and may be able to block action in the Senate. Bush has used the following method to pass key measures like tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug bill: get the House Republican leadership to push a fairly Republican bill through the House; let a bipartisan bill be developed in the Senate Finance Committee and passed on the floor; get as Republican a measure as you can in conference committee; then smash it through the House, even if it takes all night, and the Senate. This was the game plan for Social Security individual investment accounts in 2005, but the Democrats just about unanimously refused to play, and House Republicans, frightened of the elderly constituents they encounter on every district visit, were reluctant as well.

But things may work out differently on other issues. "America is addicted to oil," Bush said, and he called for increased clean energy research, zero-emission coal-fired plants, new solar and wind technologies, more nuclear energy, research on hybrid and hydrogen-fueled cars, and "research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass." He called for more research in the physical sciences, more math and science training for high school teachers, and reauthorization of the Ryan White Act. All of these could easily find bipartisan support.

Bush also mentioned a couple of issues thatwhich have been irritating many in his political base--spending and immigration. In a political climate in which victory depends on turnout, you have to keep your base pumped up, and Bush and Republicans in Congress will need to satisfy their base on these. That probably means a sharp reduction in earmarks. Immigration will require reconciling the House Republicans who passed a border security bill to some form of legalized guest-worker program, which will probably pass the Senate.

Bush has effectively passed most of his 2000 and 2004 domestic agenda and seems to have been conclusively blocked on some of the rest, so it makes sense to move on to new issues. Electoral politics seems likely to continue to be harshly partisan, but legislative proceedings may be somewhat less so. Democrats' harsh partisanship on the Alito nomination and National Security Agency surveillance of al Qaeda calls to the United States seems to be hurting them, and they may be ready for a different approach. Bush is at least trying to change the conversation; we'll see how successful he is.