Sorry to repeat myself, but I have the same reaction to this year's energy proposals in the State of the Union that I had to last year's. President Bush had the opportunity to launch America on a transformative new path for clean, efficient power. He had a chance for a "Nixon to China" moment - as the Texas oilman who leads us into a greener future. Instead, he gave us "Nixon to New Mexico" - right direction, but not nearly far enough.
As I read the president's remarks, listened to the tepid public reaction and looked at his latest polls, which show Bush to be wildly unpopular, it seemed to me that the American people basically fired George Bush in the last election. We're now just watching him clean out his desk. Both his energy proposals, and his recent Iraq surge, were about the best he could muster, given his pink slip.
The problem is that he is going to be cleaning out his desk for another two years, and Americans deserve better. I would love to see Democrats put that something better on Bush's desk - regarding both energy and Iraq.
"The stakes on Iraq and on climate change are way too large for us all to be just couch potatoes waiting for the messiah to come in 2009," said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense. "That is not an option. Yes, it would be entertaining, but we need leadership on these issues, and we need it now."
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On energy - no, the president's proposals were not just beanbag. His call to reform CAFE mileage standards for U.S. cars "shifts the debate from whether to compel U.S. automakers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles to how much they should do so," notes a strategy consultant, Peter Schwartz. And his call for a nearly fivefold mandatory increase in the production of ethanol and other alternative fuels for cars and trucks also changes the debate from whether to how much, and which fuels.
But the devil will be in the details. Will liquefied coal be one of those alternatives -which could add to global warming - or only non-fossil-fuel alternatives? On mileage standards, U.S. automakers will lobby the White House very hard for the smallest possible change. Will they get their way? If so, there isn't much here.
The really bold, transformative - and popular - initiative Bush should have offered would either be a national cap-and-trade system for controlling carbon dioxide emissions by utilities, manufacturers and autos, or a carbon tax. Both would create economic incentives for us to get rid of appliances, buildings and cars that emit a lot of CO2 and to invent and purchase those that don't.
But there is no reason that the Democrats could not right now put a cap-and-trade bill on Bush's desk themselves by spring, Krupp said, "and I think Bush would sign it."
On Iraq: talking to some of our senior military lately, I've been struck by how concerned they are about the new Bush buildup against Iran. Before we have even won one war in Iraq, the Bush team seems to be courting another with Iran. I am all for brandishing the stick with Iran, but it should be for the purpose of gaining leverage for a diplomatic dialogue with Iran and Syria about Iraq.
Let the troop surge be accompanied and reinforced by what the Baker-Hamilton commission proposed: a regional conference that puts Syria, Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia around a table with Iraqis to try to stabilize the place. And that requires that America brandish carrots and sticks with all the parties. If a real regional conference doesn't work, then Democrats who want to just set a date to withdraw will have an even stronger case because we will truly have tried everything. But let's try everything: a surge of diplomacy, not just troops.
Bush gave America's voters the reasons to fire him. Democrats need to give voters the reasons to hire them - for the long haul.
Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at: New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.