As the Republicans fumble, a return to tried and true plays

A year ago, President Bush, fresh from his reelection, was a man with bold ideas. He told the press, "I earned capital - political capital - in the campaign, and now I intend to spend it." He told the nation of his plans to dramatically alter Social Security by adding private accounts to the system, and he had a commission look into ways to overhaul the tax code to make it simpler.

It's funny how it all seems like ancient history now. The Social Security plans faded away when a host of experts said his proposal - which he said would preserve the program for future generations - would do little or nothing to fix its impending solvency crisis. The tax reform panel has been as loud a voice for change as a mime convention being held in a soundproof room.

And all that political capital? As any investor can tell you, it's not how much you have, it's how you spend it.

Of course, it is a legitimate question to ask how much Mr. Bush had in the first place. True, he won the 2004 election outright, and compared with the 2000 fiasco when he carried the country by the slimmest of electoral margins and actually lost the popular vote, it was a big win. But his 51 percent to 48 percent victory is not exactly the stuff that mandates are made of.

Did the president overreach or mismanage or, maybe, both? Regardless, as the State of the Union approaches next week, he is playing with a weak hand: diminished poll numbers and a day-to-day political reality governed by the war in Iraq. So what are the president's plans to reinspire the American people? Where does he turn to reignite his agenda?

There have been some rumblings about healthcare from the White House, but considering the depleted Treasury, the largely disliked federal prescription-drug plan, and the voters' constant concern that their benefits will be cut, it's hard to imagine any serious proposal gaining momentum.

That leaves the president with his two old reliables: tax cuts and the "war on terror." In other words, if you want an idea of what the 2006 congressional campaign is going to sound like from the White House, go dig up some speeches from the 2004 presidential race.

The message campaign began in earnest last week as the president talked of how Congress needed to make his tax cuts permanent. If Congress didn't make them permanent, he argued, it would essentially be raising taxes and choking off growth. Meanwhile, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney handled the other side of the discussion: The terrorists are coming and the Democrats are weak.

This isn't exactly a surprising turn of events. When anyone from politics to athletics is stumbling or feels they need to recapture momentum, they go to their most reliable routines. But there are real questions about how well they will play this time around.

Tax cuts raise two main problems for the White House. In the short term, the deficit is growing again. The White House is estimating it will again balloon to more than $400 billion and the rebuilding of New Orleans and Iraq looms. In such an environment will the public really get behind extending tax cuts as a priority? And in the longer view, in terms of political strategy, what if the cuts become permanent? Then what? The president can't simply keep pushing for more and more tax cuts and expect to keep generating excitement.

The war on terror also raises some issues as a political talking point. As the nation gets farther and farther from Sept. 11, 2001, it's not as easy for Bush to score points with his approach. The black-and-white world everyone saw is slowly returning to its more standard shades of gray. Iraq is at best a huge question mark. And polls already show Americans are almost evenly divided over the eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails that the National Security Agency carried out without warrants.

But the bigger concern with making the war on terror a political issue may have come in the newest release from Osama bin Laden last week. There is always bluster in Mr. bin Laden's rants, but is Al Qaeda truly disrupted or are there cells here right now planning attacks for a set date? The truth is no one really knows the condition of bin Laden's terrorist network other than himself and a few of his top lieutenants.

Those aren't the kinds of things on which one normally wants to base a political agenda, and 12 months ago it wouldn't have been for the president. But times change. Bold initiatives have given way to treading water and one can only wonder where this presidency can go next.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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