The public's focus on our war with Iraq is so intense that there is, understandably, little attention being paid to domestic issues. President Bush, in his State of the Union Message on Tuesday, will address them but in a relatively bland, almost non-partisan way.
With public war fever strong, especially after the pitiful spectacle of the prisoners of war on Iraqi television, it would be inappropriate for him to behave "politically." Yet domestic issues will remain, and our two political parties will be positioning themselves to address them. Or trying to. The Democrats do have an agenda that has been popular for some three decades - one that involves a relatively high rate of taxation and the steady expansion of social services. But this approach appears to have reached its limits.The Democrats have coped with this dilemma by emphasizing local constituency service in order to maintain a majority once built on ideological appeal.
That is a less precarious condition than one would think, because the Republicans are, and long have been, bitterly divided over whether conservatism needs an identifiable agenda at all.
Traditional conservatives believe it is their responsibility to govern. They have little patience with "the vision thing" and are always more interested in managing a successful administration than in creating and mobilizing a successful political party.
That is one reason why even successful Republican administrations tend to be so ineffectual in shaping American society over the longer term.
Bush sought in his first year to strike a balance between the traditional and ideological conservatives. But no one ever really doubted that he was far more comfortable with traditionalists.
The public break in his party came with Bush's abandonment of his commitment to "no new taxes." For the ideological conservatives the tax issue had been the cornerstone of their economic policy.
The rupture between the White House and "activist" conservatives in the party can only get worse. The White House is impatient with any efforts to come up with a conservative agenda for the party. It feels that consensus, rather than contentiousness, is what the public wants.
It may well be right, at least in the short run. Most people prefer consensus government to contentious government. But the ideological conservatives want to define the consensus and for this they need an agenda.
Now that the White House has walked away from the tax issue, they feel this need more acutely than ever.
But what will be the content of any such agenda? The key ideas are already defined as "choice" and "empowerment" of the individual in such areas as education, homeownership and Social Security (through expanded IRAs), all in an effort so reconstruct the welfare state into a far less bureaucratic and intrusive "welfare society."
In addition, there is the "supply-side" emphasis on cuts in tax rates (on capital gains, in Social Security contributions, etc.) to generate stronger economic growth.
How politically attractive such an agenda might be remains to be seen. The White House, nursing its wounds, refuses to raise the issue of tax reform once again. As for "choice" and "empowerment," the White House, while not opposed in principle, is also not supportive in fact.
Controversy is something the White House wants to avoid. Its goal is to have Bush re-elected in 1992 as the "consensus president."
That is why the conflict within the party is not over the contents of a conservative agenda but over whether such an agenda should exist to begin with.
It is possible that this intraparty struggle may, in the longer term, be more important for the future of American politics than the more conventional two-party competition. Who wins is less important than what wins.