President Bush once said his job was "to chart a moral course through a world of lesser evils." Trouble is, he went on, there are "very few moral absolutes [and] enormous potential for error and embarrassment. You will often confront moral ambiguity."
As he launched his campaign for re-election yesterday, the president was not confronting moral ambiguity. He was indulging in it, and therein lie real dangers for error and embarrassment.
Fifteen days earlier, in a State of the Union address that was supposed to define his presidency (it didn't), Mr. Bush outlined an economic recovery program that featured, among other things, a middle-class tax cut through $500 increases in exemptions for children under 19 and what seemed to be a daring attempt to slow the growth of runaway entitlement programs.
It is of little note that this newspaper looked askance at the tax-cut, which is of a kind derided by most economists, and took some heart in the prospect of coming to grips with an entitlement problem Congress ducks in sheer terror. It is of considerable note that as his campaign began, Mr. Bush dropped these two key issues from his agenda indefinitely. No absolutes there, just ambiguity.
Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee promptly countered by voting down a "streamlined" Bush proposal and prepared to send to the floor the president's whole program and a Democratic alternative that is still in gestation. Unfair, cried the GOP. Yet Democratic tactics were neither more evil nor more moral that the president's. It was just politics as usual. The result could be an impasse on Capitol Hill or an end-game deal of dubious merit in which the Republicans will get a cut in capital gains taxes and the Democrats will increase taxes on the wealthy.
What has this to do with the Bush campaign? Nothing if he could get away with symbolism rather than substance, as was the case in 1988. Everything, if the election outcome should turn on specifics in which his opponents hold him to account. As of now, there is little sign they can or will.
Although right-winger Pat Buchanan is giving New Hampshire Republicans a chance to cast a protest vote of some proportions, the president is on strong ground in dismissing him as an "America First" isolationist -- a charge, ironically, he can also fling at some of his protectionist Democratic challengers. Nothing would suit the president better as an election centerpiece. To him, internationalism is one moral absolute that should deservedly triumph over isolationism.
If the campaign zeros in on the shortcomings of American society, which pitches Mr. Bush into the uncomfortable ambiguities of tough domestic policy choices, he may continue to founder as he has in his State of the Union follow-up. In that case, Mr. Bush will be hostage to the economy. Continuing recession could kill him; recovery could make him a winner without a mandate.