Robert Novak

However, what bothered conservatives most about Tuesday night's performance was not what the president failed to do but what he actually did. The pre-speech public relations drumbeat had promised the president would deliver a new energy initiative to Americans angry about the price of gasoline. Indeed, Bush deplored that "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world" and promised to end "our dependence on Middle Eastern oil." It was how he would accomplish this that stunned conservatives.

The president proposed that the government preside over a wide array of non-petroleum energy options. That has all the characteristics of an "industrial policy," with the federal government picking winners and losers. While violating the Republican Party's free market philosophy, this is a course with a lengthy pedigree of failure all over the world.

The same State of the Union address that neglected the Republican goal of reforming the tax system called for an American Competitiveness Initiative that also promises an extension of growing, intrusive government. That would expand still more the federal role in education. Instead of shrinking the federal government, Bush wants to grow it.

None of this change in direction will lead to a kinder, gentler Democratic Party in Congress. Tuesday night's response by newly elected Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, while far more partisan than the president's speech, was relatively moderate and restrained. But it will not be Kaine with whom Bush must deal in this election. It is the fiercely partisan Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi and George Miller.

Bush's softer rhetoric can be stiffened as this year moves toward the serious business of midterm elections. But what happens to the blueprint for big government laid out by President Bush Tuesday night? That will not be easy to reverse.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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