George W. Bush did a fine job last night with his first State of the Union message. Since I spent a good deal of time reading and digesting the opinion’s of others I won’t risk sounding derivative by giving him a grade or describing it as a "home run" or any other metaphor. Instead I’d rather focus on the messages and meaning that informs what he said.
The first thing that struck me about the speech was how different this was to any of the 7 or 8 speeches given by his predecessor. Reading the plain language of the injunction written in the Constitution to "report from time to time on the state of the union" one expects the speech to be a retrospective of the past year. It has evolved over time into a device where the President lays out his agenda for the new year. Like most Presidential duties and powers, the State of the Union reached its apogee under Bill Clinton. It was an opportunity to showcase a laundry list of policy prescriptions; something for every interest group.
Nothing so much as a chance to show that he not only cared about the American people, but that he had a specific government program to appeal to the most marginal interest group or public fear. Like much of Clinton’s legacy, in contrast to the one being written by George W. Bush, we begin to see that the Clinton Administration was about the maintenance of political power, not inspiring the American people. This stands in contrast to Clinton’s alleged hero, John F. Kennedy. At least with Kennedy you got memorable moments that inspired, "pay any price", "put a man on the moon and bring him safely home", and of course "Ask not what your country can do for you…." Clinton’s speeches are more along the lines of "You don’t even have to ask what your country can do for you, we’ve anticipated your every need." Clinton wasn’t the Chief Executive, he was the Chief Concierge.
(A note on Kennedy, I know none of those quotes come from his State of the Union speeches but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that he was equally inspiring in that role. Don’t you?)
Bush’s address was simple, on point and perhaps just a bit too long. He reinforced what he has been saying for four months. We are at war, we will be at war and much hard work remains to be done. One thing conspicuous by its absence was reassurances about life returning to normal. He even said at one point our nation will never be the same again. That’s the sort of plain speaking that the American people are receptive to. He did not gloss over anything, no sugar coating and no promises that all our children would be above average. I thought that his guests were an interesting means to reinforce his basic point. A widow of a CIA agent killed in Afghanistan and two flight attendants who took down a terrorist. Critics have challenged Bush because he hasn’t called for "national sacrifice", as if we need to ration shoes. Mrs. Spann’s husband made the ultimate sacrifice. What more can a nation ask? The ladies who took down Richard Reid demonstrated that ordinary Americans can be alert and make a difference. Any of us can be called on at any time to get involved. We are a nation at war.
While I may have some substantive disagreement with some of the policy goals he laid out, they are largely the things he has talked about since his campaign began. Bush really is a compassionate conservative. He is also immensely bipartisan in his outlook. In both of these respects he is more of a pragmatic leader than a committed ideologue. He has very much adopted the approach so successfully followed by Ronald Reagan, get what you can, when you can. In political terms Bush wants to move the ball towards the goal and if that means compromise with Ted Kennedy then he is willing to do it. He recognizes that as President he has the ultimate accountability to the electorate. He will be judged on his accomplishments. Sure Bush could make a strong case for getting the government out of health care, but he faces the reality that 70% of Americans think there is a problem. It does him no good to stand against the prevailing wind and shout "stop". Instead he takes the initiative and formulates a Republican (not necessarily conservative) policy. This causes a basic change in the debate. It sets up the argument as one between policy A or B, not between doing something and doing nothing. Bush has a keen eye for the possible. It also speaks volumes of the inability of the Republican leadership to educate the public for the past 20 years.
One significant item that has been glossed over in the instant analysis was the few words he spoke on the budget. The tax cut and making it permanent has been chewed over endlessly since last night. But I think his most significant statement was about spending. He said right up front, just like with the terror war, that he would run a small deficit in the future. His justification is solid and sound. The Democrats will make no hay arguing against national defense in a time of war. Instead he made it clear that the problem would be fiscal discipline in the Congress. My prediction is that you will see threats of vetoes and actual vetoes of appropriations bills. That is where he will spend his political capital. I can think of no stronger political position to be in than to be a popular and trusted war leader in a time of national emergency who stands in the door of the public purse and states, "this shall not pass". And he has set up the rhetoric to do so. He talked about stimulus, health care etc. All the pet issues the Democrats love so well. He has an alternative for every one of their programs.
The Democratic response by Dick Gephardt tells me that although our world has changed, theirs has not. The political balance in the United States is close. One third of the people are respectively Republicans, Independents and Democrats. Since 911, most of the Independents have moved into the Bush camp. His marks from this segment are nearly as high as the ones given by Republicans. That tells me that Independents get Bush. They trust him and they support him. Brushing aside Gephardt’s paens to Bush and our military, the substance of his speech was interest group politics. No group went unmentioned. His description of the patriotic postal workers was clumsy and extended. It was a great and even inspiring story poorly told. How did he start, "a friend of mine, a union official saddened by the loss of workers….. " How much better it would have been if he had a professional write the story,
A leader of the postal union went to New Jersey fearing the worst. Postal employees were dead from anthrax,. Entire facilities had been closed down. Workers in New Jersey were sorting the mail by hand, in tents, in the dead of winter. This man was fully prepared for an earful of complaints. Instead, a postal worker stood up and said, "I have been at this job for 30 years and want to let you know that we will do whatever it takes to keep the mail moving." That’s the American spirit.
But the Democrats seem to have a tin ear. Imagine this, they are placing nearly the entire weight of their agenda on Enron. Staking it all on one card. He called for an outpouring of public support for campaign finance reform, a law that is much loved in liberal circles but doesn’t carry a whole lot of interest for some mom in Nebraska who is more concerned about her son serving in Afghanistan. Or a 50 year old auto worker who is unemployed because car companies are losing billions. When the average American takes time to write or call Congress you can bet there is some annoyance that has a lot more reality than whether or not there is too much soft money in politics.
I think what we are seeing is the Democratic Party giving up on the Independents. Rather than play to the center they appear to be shoring up their support among their interest groups. Ceci Connolly, who is typically lefty was asked what was memorable about the speech by Brit Hume. Demonstrating that their is nothing so dense as a dogmatic liberal she actually said that there were no mentions of minorities and women. This is the sort of intellectual vacuousness that passes for wisdom in Washington. She appears to have forgotten that the victims of 911 included women and minorities. The "victims" that the Democratic Party cherishes, have become victims. It’s hard to concentrate on breaking the glass ceiling if your primary worry is that the ceiling might come down on top of you.
I’m glad the Democrats don’t get it. Let’s just hope they don’t wake up and realize it until after November.