By PAUL KRUGMAN
So President Bush's plan to reduce imports of Middle East oil turns out to be no more substantial than his plan — floated two years ago, then flushed down the memory hole — to send humans to Mars.
But what did you expect? After five years in power, the Bush administration is still — perhaps more than ever — run by Mayberry Machiavellis, who don't take the business of governing seriously.
Here's the story on oil: In the State of the Union address Mr. Bush suggested that "cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol" and other technologies would allow us "to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East."
But the next day, officials explained that he didn't really mean what he said. "This was purely an example," said Samuel Bodman, the energy secretary. And the administration has actually been scaling back the very research that Mr. Bush hyped Tuesday night: the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is about to lay off staff because of budget cuts. "A veteran researcher," reports The New York Times, "said the staff had been told that the cuts would be concentrated among researchers in wind and biomass, which includes ethanol."
Why announce impressive sounding goals when you have no plan to achieve them? The best guess is that the energy "plan" was hastily thrown together to give Mr. Bush something positive to say.
For weeks administration sources told reporters that the State of the Union address would focus on health care. But at the last minute the White House might have realized that its health care proposals, based on the idea that Americans have too much insurance, would suffer the same political fate as its attempt to privatize Social Security. ("Congress," Mr. Bush said, "did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security." Democrats responded with a standing ovation.)
So Mr. Bush's speechwriters were told to replace the health care proposals with fine words about energy independence, words not backed by any actual policy.
What about the rest of the speech? The State of the Union is normally an occasion for boasting about an administration's achievements. But what's a speechwriter to do when there are no achievements?
One answer is to pretend that the bad stuff never happened. The Medicare drug benefit is Mr. Bush's largest domestic initiative to date. It's also a disaster: at enormous cost, the administration has managed to make millions of elderly Americans worse off. So drugs went unmentioned in the State of the Union.
Another answer is to rely on evasive language. In Iraq, said Mr. Bush, we've "changed our approach to reconstruction."
In fact, reconstruction has failed. Almost three years after the war began, oil production is well below prewar levels, Baghdad is getting only an average of 3.2 hours of electricity a day, and more than 60 percent of water and sanitation projects have been canceled.
So now, having squandered billions in Iraqi oil revenue as well as U.S. taxpayer dollars, we've told the Iraqis that from now on it's their problem. America's would-be Marshall Plan in Iraq, reports The Los Angeles Times, "is drawing to a close this year with much of its promise unmet and no plans to extend its funding." I guess you can call that a change in approach.
There's a common theme underlying the botched reconstruction of Iraq, the botched response to Katrina (which Mr. Bush never mentioned), the botched drug program, and the nonexistent energy program. John DiIulio, the former White House head of faith-based policy, explained it more than three years ago. He told the reporter Ron Suskind how this administration operates: "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. ... I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues."
In other words, this administration is all politics and no policy. It knows how to attain power, but has no idea how to govern. That's why the administration was caught unaware when Katrina hit, and why it was totally unprepared for the predictable problems with its drug plan. It's why Mr. Bush announced an energy plan with no substance behind it. And it's why the state of the union — the thing itself, not the speech — is so grim.