Are you excited about going to the moon and Mars? Neither am I. With the nation drowning in debt and facing great peril from the Islamofascists, calling for billions to put a man on Mars can't possibly be on any plausible list of the top 500 government priorities. But politics now is mostly a matter of managing impressions. And in this game, cost-free impressions are the most highly prized. (Cost-free to the impression-maker, not to the future voters, Congresses, and presidents who would have to come up with the money.)
The president's space idea is his second questionable announcement of the week. His semi-disguised amnesty for illegal aliens will function as a strong incentive for more illegal entries. It isn't tied to any vigorous action by Mexico to slow the flow. As the nation's second broad amnesty plan, it announces, in effect, that the United States is abandoning efforts to control its borders. On the other hand, it makes a good impression, not only with Hispanic voters but also with moderate suburban white voters who tend to think of Republicans as hard-hearted immigrant-bashers.
Democrats keep saying that President Bush is governing from the right. What they mean by this is uncertain, since the Bush domestic program pretty much tramples most conservative and Republican principles. Limited government and balanced budgets, for example, are hard to square with huge tax cuts, refusal to do anything about the coming bankruptcy of Social Security, and the nearly half-a-trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare.
Vice President Dick Cheney's reported comment on deficits to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill is simply hair- raising. "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter," Cheney said, according to O'Neill. "We won the midterms. This is our due." Under what theory of government does a narrow midterm victory create a right to dramatically expand the deficit? Was there any genuine concern about economic policy or long-term impact on the country? If so, either Cheney didn't express it or O'Neill didn't remember it. As the conversation is reported, Cheney apparently thinks deficits are just a political prize due for winning a few seats in Congress.
Social conservatives, mostly quiet at the moment, have good reason to be concerned about the performance of the Bush administration. On affirmative action, Bush has been almost invisible. As the University of Michigan cases moved toward the U.S. Supreme Court, supporters of preferences conducted a full-court press that resembled a presidential campaign, garnering scores of amicus briefs and pressuring the armed forces to argue that the nation's defense requires strong affirmative action. Bush made little effort beyond suggesting a vaguely less offensive plan for the court to endorse. After the court issued its tortured 5-4 defense of preferences, based on no known constitutional principles of any kind, the president issued a burst of praise for the court. Even more obnoxious praise came from the president's counsel, Alberto Gonzales, said to be Bush's first choice for an opening on the court. (Will he be the next Justice Souter?)
Social conservatives work hard to elect a Republican president, who then tends to behave pretty much like a conventional Democrat on social issues. Bush did appoint a committee to look into reform of Title IX's ban on sex discrimination, which Washington bureaucrats have converted into a coercive and quota-driven program. But Bush backed away from the committee report, so the distortions of Title IX apparently are now permanent.
This shows that the full-time search for a compassionate image is a costly one. Bush can't back a sensible reform of Title IX because women might be offended. He can't put much effort into pushing vouchers because suburbanites might think he is out to destroy the public schools. He can't get rid of bilingualism, a proven disaster for children and a long-term boondoggle, because it might appear to be anti-immigrant or anti-Latino.
The most important cultural frontier is the courts. This is where dubious programs that command no majority support are rescued by judges willing to stretch the law on behalf of the cultural left. Bush has offered no real resistance to the Democrats' efforts to filibuster away many of his judicial nominees. Does he think that fighting hard for good judges is another one of those niceness violations that might cause the sought-after suburbanites to frown? Or is he just working hard for a solidly Republican filibuster-proof Senate this fall? Let's hope it's the latter. It would be bracing to see a conservative president act in a conservative manner.