State of the Union

January 20, 2004

First responses to GWB's State of the Union Address. All quotes taken from the NYT's posting of the prepared text.

Why does GWB feel the need to frame his positions through false choices and misrepresentations of those who disagree with him? Is he afraid of dealing with a debate on the merits, or is this just political rhetoric in process? If the latter, it suggests that GWB and his speech writers have a poor opinion of American voters' ability to frame questions and debates. What do I mean? Many critics of No Child Left Behind have complained that the criteria and structure it uses are poorly suited to tracking and improving students, that the statistical categories the act uses misrepresent academic performance, and that high-stakes testing can not be the only measure of success. How does he respond? "This Nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics." That is a false choice. He uses similar rhetoric on the Patriot Act and on how best to respond to Al Qaeda.

Bush is very comfortable with religious language. He framed several key sections of the address in both democratic and providential terms. One paragraph could have come straight from the second generation of Americans, the people who turned from Jefferson's Empire for Democracy to marry Providence and Democracy into a national mission to the world. Here is GWB:

America is a Nation with a mission - and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace - a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great Republic will lead the cause of freedom.

Note the use of "special calling" and of a "Nation with a mission" - especially the capitalization. Bush, like early nineteenth century evangelicals and stemwinders, has married John Winthrop's notion of a national mission and national example with a Jacksonian commitment to democracy. He is also trying to insulate the nation from the charge that Middle East involvement is a pax Americana imposed to protect a world where one country takes the eagle's share of resources.

Bush was unrepentant, no, triumphalist on Iraq. I will repeat my earlier statements on Iraq: it was a high-risk choice to force the confrontation and invasion; the merits of that choice can not be measured until a stable regime is in place. It was a good deed to depose a brutal thug; it will not be so good of a deed if he is replaced by a comparably brutal regime. More, international intervention only works for a Democracy if it can be rationalized (note that word choice) from the perspective of both humanitarian duty and national benefit. Deposing a thug and keeping a new thug from replacing the old one is a humanitarian duty. Was it the best use of American prestige, American military, and American resources? Did it distract from Al Qaeda? Did it make it relations with Iran, Egypt and the places that matter more difficult or more likely? The decision can not be undone, but I have yet to see anything that dispels my lingering doubt that the invasion was NOT in the American national interest. I will be glad to be proved wrong, but so far the jury is still out. Bush's speech did not change my mind, in part because I continue to see a disparity between Saddam Hussein's actual weapons programs and the programs discussed in this and the previous State of the Union addresses. Eric Muller reposted last year's speech - it speaks for itself.

Bush made some interesting statements on sexuality, and used his religious beliefs in a crucially important manner while doing so. He came out for a constitutional amendment making heterosexual marriage the only legitimate form of civil union - a stupid trivialization of the U.S. Constitution. While doing so, he slammed the Fred Phelps and Pat Robinsons: "The outcome of this debate is important - and so is the way we conduct it. The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God's sight." Those are very important words, and I thank GWB for using them. There is a lingering whiff of toleration, not equality, but it is still an important reminder to the more rabid members of his base.

Of course, he threw them some raw meat with his repeated calls for faith-based organizations to get more involved in government-funded charities, including his good proposal for a Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, and with his push for greater abstinence education as part of sex ed in the schools. I had the odd frustration that I often get from GWB rhetoric - "Abstinence for young people is the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases." Does this mean that all programs should teach and support abstinence or that funded programs can only discuss abstinence? The one is admirable and correct. The latter is an all-or-nothing public health strategy that, while it will likely reduce the number of kids having sex will increase the likelihood that those who do will have pregnancies, trade diseases, and screw up their future. "Decisions children make now can affect their health and character for the rest of their lives." - but what does that rhetoric really mean?

Speaking of decisions and children, he wants to make his tax cuts permanent - as expected - which means that the already screwy numbers he used to justify them just got thrown out the window - as predicted. While doing so, he added a throw-away line about privatizing social security with no mention of the costs or process to be followed. Bush is very good at proposing grandiose schemes, terrible at explaining, justifying, or funding them.

All things considered, the speech could have been worse. GWB did make some good points in and among his false choices and poorly framed or justified claims. I fear that I remain a skeptic however. On his good ideas, I wonder how they will be implemented, how they will be funded, and if he will turn it over to the clowns who dominate the upper echelons of the White House? On his bad ideas, I hope that they are throwaway rhetoric but fear we are going to see the Constitution trivialized and religion politicized.

At least now I have done a think piece on the speech - now I know what I think about the thing so I can talk about it coherently tomorrow. I see that a lot of other bloggers are doing the same thing I am. Kevin Drum sez it was short, light, and had "the gall to pretend that the Kay report vindicated all the prewar WMD allegations?" James at Outside the Beltway agrees that it was light but expects to see a lot of soundbites. Phil Carter gives his usual very good military-political analysis, and points out an omission that I had missed: "Osama's name is conspicuous by its absence, and indeed, the President did not really speak in much detail about Al Qaeda at all."

EDIT - spelling and links.

Posted by Red Ted at January 20, 2004 10:58 AM | TrackBack