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Mr. Bush’s Political Science

Now that President Bush has offered up his best notion of what it might mean to govern in a bipartisan fashion during his last two years, it’s clearly up to the Democrats to come up with a plan that has at least a chance of working. The president’s plan, as spelled out in this week’s State of the Union address, will not.

America today faces a host of large and small problems, some far older than this administration, that demand a public response. On a few of them — particularly immigration and education — this president has offered imaginative leadership and deserves the Democrats’ help. In one area, the fight against disease in Africa, Bush has displayed uncommon courage.

Looming over these achievements, however, are a handful of truly existential challenges, fast-escalating crises that threaten national and even global calamity if they are not addressed effectively, and soon. The list is brief but terrifying: The Iraq War. Global warming. Our budget and trade imbalances and the ballooning national debt. The growing gap between rich and poor, manifest most glaringly in our collapsing health care system. In each of these matters, the president showed himself this week to be unwilling or unable — unwilling in the case of Iraq and the debt, unable in health care and the environment — to articulate genuine, bipartisan solutions. The Democrats need to counter them with better ideas.

The Iraq War, the nation’s most hotly contested topic, hardly needs further comment. The president tried to sum up our dilemma Tuesday night with a remark meant to convey candor but proving the opposite: “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.” It would be more correct to say that it is not the fight he promised us, but it is the fight he dragged us into. Now he proposes to salvage the wreckage by dishing up what amounts to more of the same, despite overwhelming opposition in the electorate, much of the military and growing swaths of his own party. It’s up to Congress to seek a way out of the quagmire that doesn’t leave the Middle East in flames and Americans divided for a generation. That won’t be easy, given the president’s determination to march us off his cliff, but try they must.

The deficits are one of the least discussed crises on the national agenda, yet they may be even more threatening — and more intractable — than Iraq. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, America had a cumulative national debt of about $900 billion, built up over two centuries. Today, thanks to a quarter-century of Republican tax cuts and borrow-and-spend government — slowed only briefly during the first Bush and Clinton presidencies — our debt is approaching $10 trillion, nearly equal to our Gross Domestic Product. It paralyzes our governing choices, terrifies our allies and puts our future in thrall to our creditors, principally the People’s Republic of China. Decades of Republican rhetoric have made the proper solution, higher and more progressive taxation, tantamount to political suicide. This is where Democratic leadership and courage are most needed.

On two other topics, global warming and health care, the president showed signs of real openness to change this week. These are the areas where Congress and the White House have the greatest opportunities to seize the moment and make progress. Bush’s proposals on both matters are deeply flawed, but the very fact that he chose to address them is important. Democrats must seize the opening and meet him head-on with ideas that make sense.

On global warming, the very good news is the simple fact that Bush spoke the words “serious problem” and “climate change” in the same sentence for the first time. The bad news is that his proposed solutions don’t address the problem. He conflates climate change with energy independence in a single energy package, whose details are crafted mainly to reduce our use of imported Middle East oil. But energy independence and fighting global warming aren’t the same thing. One is a useful foreign policy tool; the other is a battle to save the planet from impending catastrophe.

The two goals can serve each other, but it’s important to keep priorities straight. Bush has them backward. His plan serves his foreign policy goals and his friends in the energy industry. Most important, is doesn’t address the crying need, demanded even by big energy firms, for mandatory emission caps to clean up the smokestacks. Still, he’s taken the first step by putting the issue on the table. Now it’s up to Congress to help him get the details right.

Health care may be the area where the president’s seemingly good intentions are the most out of synch with his bad ideas. The president said he wanted to make health insurance more available to those who don’t have it now. To do that, he proposed raising taxes on those who currently have good plans provided at work, traditionally America’s main vehicle for coverage, in order to push more Americans into lower-cost, lower-quality plans. The program doesn’t offer any method of getting the insurance companies to offer decent, low-cost plans that don’t exclude those who are sickest and need coverage most. What it does do is offer businesses new incentives to stop offering coverage to their workers, inevitably compounding the problem.

The president declared Tuesday night that Americans want their health care decisions to be made by patients and doctors, not government and insurance companies. But the proposal he laid out will do the opposite. By pushing more Americans into cheaper and inevitably more restrictive health plans, he will magnify one of the most painful problems in our current private-insurer system: the dependence of growing numbers of the sick on the whims of faceless insurance company bureaucrats who decide what treatments we can and cannot have.

The old ideal of caring doctors sitting with patients, hearing out their woes and offering treatment based on their best judgment, unhindered by bureaucrats or paperwork, is more and more a privilege of the rich. Bush’s plan will make things worse.

On all these pressing issues, it will be tempting for the Democrats to dismiss the president’s wrongheaded proposals out of hand, offer their own best positions, watch the president veto them and then laugh their way into the 2008 presidential elections. But that would be the irresponsible path. The crises are too great, and the time is too short. America needs answers.

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