WASHINGTON — All in all, it hasn't been a good three years for the United States of America. The deficit is up. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. The country was attacked and is now involved in a complicated war on terror, in which victory will be difficult to define. And the economy only now seems to be pulling out of the dumps.
Faced with this picture, the Bush administration is considering a bold plan of action.
If elected to a second term, it's considering going to the moon. Really. Over the past few months, Vice President Dick Cheney has reportedly been quietly meeting with people on Capitol Hill and at NASA to discuss the possibility of returning to the US space program's favorite place to drive golf balls.
The obvious question is whether the president has run out of places to hold fundraisers on earth. But the president's advisers say that's not a problem ... yet.
No, last week, word of the potential return to the moon was leaked here under the flag of uniting the nation under a "big idea" that could bring together Americans of all stripes. "Big works. Big grabs attention," one administration official told The Washington Post.
And there you have it, America, a plan for the future. Other options under consideration: building a skyscraper out of $20 bills and making the world's largest hoagie.
Not that there's anything wrong with the "big idea" idea on its surface. Uniting the country around a common purpose is part of what presidents do. But considering the vast array of problems already facing the nation at home and abroad, it seems a bit redundant to go out looking for more.
And beyond the weirdness of creating more obstacles in a world already full of them, there is the larger question of whether this administration is still in touch with reality.
In this administration's first three years in power there have already been two large tax cuts and a change in the Medicare prescription-drug benefit that may cost $2 trillion over the next 20 years - and next year there is a scheduled large corporate tax cut. The federal government, not long ago in the black, is now drowning in $500 billion worth of red ink and levels are only likely to rise.
All things considered, it seems hard to see the logic in blowing another umpteen billion dollars on a plan to boldly go where we went 30-plus years ago. Space exploration is without question a worthy mission for the nation, but it's hard to argue for spending massive amounts of money on it when things like homeland security and education are not fully funded.
The lack of fiscal responsibility of this administration has gone from breathtaking to comical. As one conservative economist said last week, "The budgetary situation is getting so far off track that you simply can't propose any more tax cuts without looking like a complete idiot." Getting off track? At this point the fiscal train is driving on the sidewalk and threatening to wipe out all pedestrians.
So why the moon? What's really behind the newest White House trial balloon is what's behind so many of this administration's proposals: appearances.
Whenever this administration gets in a jam of any sort it has two responses: criticize its opponents or change the subject. Can't get the Iraqis to draft a constitution? Agree to call for national elections. Can't find the weapons of mass destruction that were at one time the reason behind the invasion in the first place? Say the whole thing was about advancing democracy.
Going into an election year, the moon could create another thing to talk about besides, well, almost anything else. The economy may be improving, but jobs aren't coming back the way most expected. And who knows where Iraq will be next fall? After three years of down notes, the moon gives Bush the pick-me-up topic of the campaign. It hits all the right patriotic notes and lets him talk about vision and future in a positive way - something that anyone looking at the federal ledger would find difficult.
And who knows? The strategy may even work - for a while. But in the long term all this moon talk isn't likely to take off. At some point, reality enters the picture even for this administration. Moon rocks are nice, but you can't pay off debt with them.