Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The State of the Union, from top to bottom

Wow, where to begin? Let’s start at the very beginning, and proceed chronologically.

President Bush’s political predicament was best illustrated by the tableau behind him. As he got ready to deliver his subdued State of the Union address, he was flanked, over his right shoulder, by Dick Cheney, perhaps the only elected leader at the moment who is more unpopular than Bush is; not to mention the fact that Cheney had his name bandied about all day during the Scooter Libby perjury trial, which threatens to turn into a circular firing squad. And Bush was flanked, over his left shoulder, by Nancy Pelosi, whose rise to the House speakership can be directly attributed to Bush’s ruinous war of choice in Iraq.

Most State of the Union speeches (a purely 20th-century contrivance, mandated nowhere in the Constitution) are pretty worthless, no matter which party occupies the White House, and this one was no exception. Every president pledges to work in a bipartisan manner, and it’s only a matter of time before the pledge is breached.

Bush managed to do this – perhaps inadvertently – within the first 30 seconds. He talked up the “wisdom of working together,” and then (according to the written transcript) he proceeded to “congratulate the Democratic majority.” The problem was that when he spoke the sentence, he extended congrats to “the Democrat majority” – the standard GOP pejorative that ticks off Democratic lawmakers every time. And, as Bush would soon make clear while talking about Iraq (the dark cloud that hung over the chamber), he doesn't really believe in the "wisdom" of working with people who view his war as a disaster and insist that he change course.

(During the ’06 State of the Union speech, he also pledged to work with Democrats “in a spirit of goodwill and respect” – yet, by October, he was out on the campaign trail contending that the congressional Democrats were soft on al Qaeda.)

Back to the ’07 speech. Moments after uttering his pejorative, and still on the bipartisan theme, Bush said that “our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done.” An interesting line, given the fact that, during the GOP majority reign, he was perfectly comfortable with the strategy of never crossing the aisle. The Republicans reigned by maximizing votes among their own people and stiffing the opposition. They often refused to let the powerless Democrats see proposed legislation until the final moments prior to passage, and they often refused to allow Democrats to offer amendments. But now that the Democrats are in control, Bush wanted to make it clear that he expects them to cross the aisle and engage the GOP.

Bush soon moved on to budgetary matters, noting that “what we need to do is impose spending discipline in Washington, D.C.,” another interesting line, given the fact that he and his GOP Congress jacked up spending to heights not seen since the glory days of LBJ. Then he added, “Together, we can restrain the spending appetite of the federal government,” again trying to hold the Democrats to a standard that he didn’t insist upon when his side had the power.

This pattern held as he took up the issue of earmarks, those special interest goodies slipped into bills under the cloak of secrecy at the eleventh hour. The GOP Congress ran roughshod with this practice, and he never said a word. Yet now he declares, “The time has come to end this practice…and cut the number and cost of earmarks at least in half by the end of this session.” One wonders whether he would be setting such a goal if the GOP Congress had managed to weather the November elections.

He then turned his attention, briefly, to the need for Social Security reform. He did it in one paragraph, sticking to generalities. It’s a sign of his waning political fortunes that he said nothing whatsoever about his onetime crusade to partially privatize Social Security. Last year he at least mentioned that he wanted to set up a “commission” to study the idea further. This year, not even a word about that.

(Nor, by the way, did he say a single word about post-Katrina New Orleans. In last year’s speech, he lauded his reconstruction program and declared that “a hopeful society comes to the aid of fellow citizens. But Katrina is a sore subject. A House Republican investigation has assailed the White House for “a failure of leadership.”)

Shortly after the passing reference to Social Security, Bush moved on to health care. He stated: “A future of hope and opportunity requires that all our citizens have affordable and available health care.” Do those words have the ring of déjà vu? Here’s what he said last year: “We must confront the rising cost of care…and help people afford the insurance coverage they need.” And here’s what he said in 2004: “We must work together to help control those costs and extend the benefits of modern medicine throughout the country.”

How he expects to achieve this year what has eluded him when his own party ran the Congress in previous years is surely a mystery. And the proposals he suggested are dead on arrival anyway. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the Democrats will back his idea of taking away federal Medicaid money intended for public hospitals and other safety-net providers, and using that money to help people buy private health insurance.

Immigration reform – specifically, a guest worker program aimed at putting illegals on a path to citizenship – is probably his best shot at working well with Democrats. After mentioning health care, he moved to immigration and said, “We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals.” The Democrats liked that line. This time, most of the Republicans sat on their hands. On this issue, Bush remains in trouble with his security-first conservative base.

(Nor will his religious conservative followers be happy with the speech, which said nothing about protecting the family from gay marriage, or protecting the culture of life. As they should know by now, the Bush team merely views that stuff as red meat for the election season.)

Then Bush moved on to the energy issue – and got in trouble again, at least with anyone who is not afflicted by amnesia. He lamented the fact that “for too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil.” The problem is, he utters a variation of this line, and calls for ambitious solutions, in almost every State of the Union address. In 2002 he said, “This Congress must act to encourage conservation.” In 2004 he urged Congress to “promote conservation.” In 2005, he urged “affordable, environmental responsible energy.” In 2006, he said we need to “dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy.” In 2006, he also talked about the wonders of using “switchgrass” to make clean fuel; this year, he shortened it to “grass.”

The words are always nice, but, meanwhile, our foreign oil dependency keeps getting worse. In Bill Clinton’s final year in office, 58 percent of our oil came from foreign sources; last year, it was 70 percent.

A few minutes later, after referring in passing to “the serious challenge of global climate change,” a line that dismayed a number of Republicans who still believe global warming is a hoax, Bush moved into the more treacherous realm of foreign policy. He took care to speak about the threat of global terrorism in terms that all could agree with. Indeed, when he said that “we owe a debt of gratitude to the brave public servants who devote their lives to finding terrorists and stopping them,” Nancy Pelosi sprang to her feet so fast (signaling her fellow Democrats to do likewise and thus demonstrate their toughness credentials), that one could have sworn that Cheney had placed a tack on her seat.

But soon came the familiar Iraq escalation arguments. He said again that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and his people have “promised” to get tough with sectarian violence in Baghdad, that they have “pledged” to confront the bad guys, even those who are politically allied with them. But he again said nothing about a Plan B, in the highly likely event that Maliki doesn’t make good on his promises and pledges. And, fighting from his own political bunker, Bush still sought to draw a line in the sand. He suggested that the failure to support his view of the mission “is to ignore the lessons of September 11.”

Translation: He still thinks he commands the 9/11 high ground, and that if Democrats – and renegade Republicans – pass a resolution condemning his escalation, they will be guilty of dishonoring the memory of that day. That’s quite a gutsy presumption on his part, considering the fact that, at this point, support for his war strategy may soon consist of his wife, his dog, and Joe Lieberman.

One other line about the war, and about the bygone days of his political prowess, is worth a mention. He said near the end of his speech that “we went into this largely united in our assumptions…” Note that he didn’t say “united in our view of the evidence.” As we now know, all too well, there was no consensus evidence of WMDs. But there were certainly “assumptions” by the administration that WMDs did exist, and it was those mistaken assumptions that were sold to the Congress and general public.

It is the memory of those assumptions that has put the Democrats in charge, and left Bush in a plaintive state (on his troop plan, “I ask you to give it a chance to work”). He is not likely to be indulged in the way he would like. Democratic Senator James Webb, delivering his party’s rebuttal last night, said that if Bush doesn’t agree to a new Iraq strategy, the Democrats "will be showing him the way." Which is akin to warning Bush to get out of the way. Such is the mood in Washington that no mere State of the Union address can hope to dispel.