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Greenfield: Bush plays to his strengths

Fighting terror and remaking high court keys to speech, agenda

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

Bush mentioned new Justice Alito, whose confirmation was a victory for the president and conservatives.



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    George W. Bush
    Judiciary (system of justice)
    John Roberts

    WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Forget the proposal -- a repeat of one he made three years ago -- to move toward hydrogen-powered automobiles, an idea that might blossom into reality around 2020 and does nothing before then to reduce America's junkie-like addiction to fossil fuel.

    Forget the half-hearted salute to ethical reform and the pro forma condemnation of special interests.

    All you have to remember about this State of the Union address was one paragraph and two audience members.

    The paragraph was a tough, take-no-prisoners defense of wiretapping without a warrant. The two audience members were Chief Justice John Roberts and just-confirmed Justice Sam Alito. Together they tell you all you need to know about how the president, and the Republicans, intend to wage their fight to retain control of the Congress this fall.

    President Bush's words about the interception of conversations between suspected terrorists abroad and others in the United States:

    "This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. ... If there are people inside our country who are talking with al Qaeda, we want to know about it -- because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again."

    In substance, this is the same message Bush used to take back the Senate in 2002 and to win re-election in 2004. The message is simple: I know how dangerous our enemies are; my opponents do not. I will not let the United Sates stand by passively and be attacked again, and those who oppose me or my policies, endanger us.

    In 2002 it was Democratic resistance to the rules governing workers at the new Department of Homeland Security. In 2004 it was John Kerry's "flip-flopping" on support for the war in Iraq. But at its core, the argument rests on the same foundation: the one area where Americans have always supported Bush is his conduct of the war on terror.

    Even now, when the president's job approval ratings barely exceed 40 percent, when he gets dreadful marks on the economy, on Iraq, on health care, on corruption, Americans still give him relatively good marks (53-43 percent) on terror. And as Karl Rove told Republicans recently, this is the key point Republicans will make this fall.

    And what of Justices Roberts and Alito? Bush's mention of them drew (from the Republican side of the aisle) some of the loudest, lustiest cheers of the evening. And why not? As much as any other issue, the remaking of the federal judiciary has been a key item in the Republican/conservative canon. The president's commitment to making courts more conservative has been a key to the remarkably solid level of support he has received from his base. And -- not so incidentally -- his nomination of Harriet Miers to the court threatened that base.

    This is critical because history shows that the key to an embattled president's recovery is the maintenance of his base. When his side stays with him -- as with President Reagan after Iran-Contra, Clinton after Monica -- he can survive. If substantial members of his party desert -- as with LBJ and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, the first George Bush with taxes -- he cannot prevail.

    With the nominations of Roberts and -- even more, Alito -- the president reaffirmed his commitment to the rightward move of the courts, kept his base intact and made it more likely that he can survive the combination of Iraq, Katrina, political scandal and economic anxiety that has put him in political jeopardy.

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