Editorial on State of the Union address

Travis Gettys Jan. 31, 2003 Bush proposes first-strike doctrine, but compassionately

George W. Bush ran for president on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” an image crafted to mostly by Karen Hughes, his longtime trusted advisor. Hughes, who left the White House last spring to spend more time with her family, is credited with softening the rough edges of Bush’s persona, which – to his detractors – comes off as something of a cross between Dan Quayle and Yosemite Sam.

Luckily for Bush, whose poll numbers are beginning to reflect voters’ concerns with the foundering economy and looming war, Hughes returned just long enough to draft his second State of the Union address.

With its religious themes and emphasis on compassion, the speech Bush gave last week had Hughes’s fingerprints all over it, down to her penchant for emphasizing key points in trios (“our faith is sure, our resolve is firm and our union is strong”). If you were playing the State of the Union address drinking game, you were hammered if you drank each time Bush said “blessed,” “faith” or “peace.” Pretty tame stuff for a speech in which many Americans anticipated a declaration of war against Iraq, or North Korea, or somebody.

Everyone knows war with Iraq is a priority for this administration – it’s practically all they’ve talked about since they lost track of Osama What’s-His-Name – but Bush the son doesn’t want to repeat the crucial mistake of Bush the father. Despite high approval ratings following the first Gulf War, the elder Bush was viewed as out of touch with voters’ concerns about what was then (as now) a sluggish economy. His attempts at persuading them otherwise were unsuccessful, and voters turned to Bill Clinton.

Fresh off his party’s majority gains in the midterm elections, the younger Bush delivered his Hughes-scripted caring message (Operation: I Care?) by promising a little something for everyone while offering few specifics as to how we’re going to pay for it all. His economic plan consists almost entirely of immediate and permanent tax cuts aimed at the wealthiest Americans, $300 billion deficit and multiple-front wars be damned.

Right-wing think tanks have already established the terms for the tax-cut debate by churning out op-ed pieces accusing opponents of engaging in class warfare. Instead of reasoned arguments against deficit spending, liberals and moderates have been put on the defensive, and must devote most of their arguments to denying that they favor income redistribution, while the Sean Hannitys of the world wink and roll their eyes at the TV cameras.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial labeling as “lucky duckies” those Americans who make $12,000 or less per year, and therefore pay little or no income tax. If you’re one of them, how lucky are you feeling right now? Talk about class warfare!

In his speech, Bush also offered proposals for Medicare reform and prescription drug benefits, two issues that move college students everywhere to profound boredom. Most of his proposals remain limited, as they did during his campaign, to placing caps on lawsuits and privatizing essential services, both of which fulfill the wildest fantasies of some of Bush’s biggest backers: pharmaceutical manufacturers, insurance companies and investment brokerages.

Bush next tried playing the environmentalist by hyping hydrogen fuel cell cars and his recently-enacted Healthy Forests Initiative, though he didn’t spend much time on the specifics of either proposal. While the gradual phasing-in of fuel cell technology sounds great, Bush failed to mention that he has already pushed back a deadline, instituted by his father, for automakers to develop this technology. Nor did he go into detail about his plan to prevent forest fires by selling off national parkland to logging companies. Bush apparently got Smokey the Bear’s plea only part right: “Only you can prevent forests.”

Bush spent the middle portion of his State of the Union address sending a shout-out to the religious right. He peppered this portion of the speech with religious allusions and not-so-thinly veiled references to restricting women’s reproductive rights. Bush urged lawmakers to pass his stalled faith-based initiatives and the Citizen Service Act. Then, in a total reversal of all his past policies, Bush talked of preventing AIDS in Africa with expensive medicine (I’d like to say what’s up to the pharmaceutical makers!) and what will likely amount to questionable foreign aid packages to dictators, no doubt with abstinence-only strings attached. That is, if the proposal gets passed in the first place.

Then, in a whiplash-inducing segue, Bush dropped his voice just a bit, the way one might to build suspense in a ghost story, and began talking about his plans for war with Iraq. He spoke with obvious relish of the torture and assassinations of suspected al-Qaeda members. He made pithy action-hero remarks. He slurred several jingoistic slogans.

But Bush gave the neither American people, nor the world, any credible reasons to launch a pre-emptive war with Iraq. Polls reflect that Americans are even less inclined now than after his October speech at Union Terminal to risk the lives of their loved ones in the military – and the reputation of the United States – to invade a sovereign nation that probably does not have the means or the desire to attack us.

The only evidence the Bush offered last week was the biological weapons that the U.S. had sold Saddam in the 1980s, and what Bush characterized as “high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production,” which were discovered last month by U.N. inspectors. However, according to more objective sources, those items pose little, if any, threat to us.

Former U.N. inspector Scott Ritter has said repeatedly that any biological weapons Iraq might have in its possession would be, by now, nothing more than “harmless goo.” The alleged missile warheads, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, are not even usable for nuclear weapons.

“Harmless goo and aluminum tubes” is catchy, but it’s not much of a rallying cry. In historical terms, “Remember the Maine” was much better. And just as dubious.