It was a big week for Republican leaders. On Jan. 31, Ben Bernanke was sworn in as Federal Reserve chairman and Samuel Alito was sworn in as the 110th Supreme Court justice. On Feb. 2, House Republicans elected John Boehner of Ohio as their new majority leader. And on the day Bernanke and Alito were sworn in, George W. Bush delivered his fifth State of the Union Address to Congress.
The chief focus was on the State of the Union. There were two halves to the speech, separate but unequal. Bush spent the first half of his speech vigorously defending his handling of Iraq, as he has since November, and sending messages to the rulers and people of Iran.
That nation, he said, is "now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people," and that regime must not be allowed to gain nuclear weapons.
In contrast, he hailed the people of Iran and said "our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran." Fine words -- if they're backed up by vigorous efforts to encourage and aid those who seek freedom there.
Bush also defended vigorously the National Security Agency's surveillance of communications between suspected al-Qaida terrorists abroad and persons in the United States.
It is conventional wisdom in much of the mainstream media and among many Democrats that Iraq and the NSA program are politically damaging to Republicans. Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, clearly disagree. In a speech to the Republican National Committee earlier last month, Rove insisted that national security will be a central theme for Republicans this year, and Bush's speech indicates that he will take the offensive on that issue.
Democrats would like to take national security off the table. But rather than stand and applaud Bush on the NSA surveillance, almost all of them sat glumly in their chairs, hostages to the left-wing blogosphere and billionaire contributors whose furious and often obscene denunciations of Bush and the war on terrorism set the tone for the whole party.
In the second half of the speech, on domestic issues, Bush addressed issues that threaten to demoralize his conservative base -- spending, immigration and scandal -- and advanced proposals designed to win bipartisan support -- an Advanced Energy Initiative to address our supposed addiction to oil, science and math teacher training, and portable health insurance coverage.