There are two great issues on which November 2006 will pronounce. The first has to do with spending. But here the voter is perforce equivocal. He can feel as strongly on the subject as the deprived local mortgage collector, but it isn't obvious whom to kick in the behind. The voter reminds himself that all money bills, by constitutional direction, have to originate in the House of Representatives. Is he then going to punish for wild spending whatever incumbent is within his reach? Perhaps the voters will be permissive with Congress -- on the grounds that the president, after all, was there with a veto power he never exercised. Will they satisfy themselves with sending the legislators back for another session and storing up their rage and resentment to be used against the GOP in 2008?
Overhanging all other concerns, of course, is the war in Iraq. That, the voter will tell himself, is the work of one man: the outgoing president of the United States. It is not easy to punish a lame duck, but one way is to bring in as his successor a chief executive from the other political party. So that even 2 1/2 years before Election Day 2008, party strategists are thinking about Iraq.
Certainly George W. Bush is doing so. At West Point on May 27, he spoke to the graduating class. He was acutely aware that this was the first class to have matriculated at the academy after Sept. 11. Mr. Bush didn't wish away the hard edges of service in the U.S. Army. He stressed that we were at war. He spoke of the "34 times since your class arrived (that) you have observed a moment of silence in Washington Hall to honor a former cadet fallen in the war on terror."
There was not a hint of retrenchment, on the military, the historical or the ideological front. Mr. Bush reiterated in some detail the line set down by Harry Truman. "He told the Congress: 'It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.'"
Mr. Bush cited the early costs of this doctrine. "More than 54,000 Americans gave their lives in Korea. Yet, in the end, communist forces were pushed back to the 38th Parallel -- and the freedom of South Korea was secure." What about North Korea?
Never mind. "The military footprint Truman established on two continents has remained virtually unchanged to this day, and has served as the foundation for security in Europe and in the Pacific."
The historical perspective is interesting. "In the Cold War, we deterred Soviet aggression through a policy of mutually assured destruction. Unlike the Soviet Union, the terrorist enemies we face today hide in caves and shadows -- and emerge to attack free nations from within. The terrorists have no borders to protect, or capital to defend. They cannot be deterred -- but they will be defeated. America will fight the terrorists on every battlefront, and we will not rest until this threat to our country has been removed."
Is this just soldier-talk? Soldier-talk, graduation-time?
Mr. Bush is manifestly a true believer in the rhetoric he uses. "In this new war, we have set a clear doctrine. After the attacks of September the 11th, I told a joint session of Congress: America makes no distinction between the terrorists and the countries that harbor them. If you harbor a terrorist, you are just as guilty as the terrorists and you're an enemy of the United States of America. In the months that followed, I also made clear the principles that will guide us in this new war: America will not wait to be attacked again. We will confront threats before they fully materialize. We will stay on the offense against the terrorists, fighting them abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.
"America is safer, and the world is more secure, because these two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) are now democracies -- and they are allies in the cause of freedom and peace. ... More than 90 nations are cooperating in a global campaign to dry up terrorist financing, to hunt down terrorist operatives, and bring terrorist leaders to justice."
The graduating cadets cheered lustily, and after his speech the president shook the hands individually of 860 young men and women who will be going off to war. They have confidence in their leadership, though some may have wondered why, in our war against terrorists, we have not yet succeeded in executing Saddam Hussein.