The unifying theme in tomorrow's elections is the omnipresent president.
Hopping about the country in his government jet, George W. Bush has turned disparate local races into a me-me referendum. His eagerness is amazing, or at least it should be. On foreign policy, Bush started off rocky and improved.
But on domestic policy he started off rocky and remains so.
Take foreign policy first. Bush's initial weakness boiled down to one error: that international relations could be reduced to a few simple priorities. Build missile defense. Contain China. Concentrate on relations with big powers. Never mind foreign aid, nation-building and weak countries. Forget trying to fix the world's problems, from violence in Israel-Palestine to financial crises in Latin America.
This false system of priorities mercifully has collapsed. Bush has promised a big jump in foreign aid. He is contemplating ambitious nation-building in Iraq. He has abandoned the absurd idea that weak countries don't matter and soon will visit Africa. On Israel-Palestine, he lacks the guts to stand up to Israeli hard-liners. But at least he's dropped his campaign stance, which elevated non-engagement to the status of high principle.
Bush has improved on financial crises too. His team came to power believing that bailouts made economic problems worse by encouraging bad policies. But the non-bailout of Argentina late last year led to even dumber policies than the country had pursued before, and the Bush folk have reconsidered. They are now happy to support a vast International Monetary Fund package for Brazil. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill sometimes says wacky things that make the markets spin, but this is a personnel problem, not a policy one.
Or take the administration's supposed unilateralism. After 9/11 there was much nervous speculation that the mad aunt in the Pentagon would zap Afghanistan without consulting the United Nations or NATO. As it turned out, Bush consulted both. This summer auntie was fixing to club Saddam Hussein without consulting anyone. As it turns out, the Bush team has secured a resolution from Congress and spent weeks talking to the U.N. Security Council. Meanwhile the administration is pursuing multilateral trade deals, and its terrorist-finance offensive is based on cooperation with allies. The cowboy-unilateralist caricature of Bush is silly.
What isn't so silly, on the other hand, is the plutocrat-corporatist caricature of the president's domestic policy. Bush has used his campaign appearances during the past week to talk up millionaire-friendly tax cuts, and his appointees at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have jeopardized post-Enron reform under pressure from the accounting lobby. He still supports an energy bill that, despite some good electricity provisions, is packed with ridiculous giveaways for business.
While Bush's foreign policy team has adapted, the domestic economic team is rigid. It started out trumpeting tax cuts on the argument that the nation could afford them. Now the budget surplus has vanished, but the trumpets carry on regardless. It started out with an SEC chairman who promised to be "kinder" to the accounting lobby. Now our 401K surpluses have vanished amid accounting scandals, yet the administration still sides with the accounting lobby.
If you wanted to parody Democrats, you'd invent a proposal to tax everyone at 80 percent. If you wanted to parody Republicans, you'd invent the repeal of the estate tax -- except this wouldn't be an invention. Bush truly supports this crazy idea, even though the estate tax is a way of ensuring that big wealth is enjoyed mainly by people who earned it, rather than by less deserving heirs, and even though the tax affects only the richest 2 percent of families. At a time when the baby bust threatens our fiscal health, and when economic shifts already have increased disparities of wealth, repealing the estate tax is nutty.
Why is it that Bush's reasonable foreign policy attracts at least as much criticism as his unreasonable domestic one? Partly because of the life-and-death stakes in foreign policy. But also because of something else.
In foreign policy, the administration deliberately talks ugly but acts mostly smart. In domestic policy, it talks pretty and acts horribly.
This isn't a coincidence. The administration knows that its foreign policy is more likely to succeed if it gives off crazy-auntie vibes. The United Nations has to fear that if it stalls forever on Iraq, the United States may act anyway; this isn't unilateralism, it's leadership. But the administration also knows that if it told the truth about its economic policy, nobody could support it. So it invents stories about how the "death tax" is destroying family farms and talks tough on corporate scandals even while resisting real reform. The aim is to disguise reality.
So here's a thought for tomorrow's voters. The problem with Bush is not the foreign one he seems to advertise. It's the domestic one that he conceals.
And it's on domestic policy that the composition of Congress matters most.