January 29, 2003


STATE OF THE UNION: All told, a strong performance. From the early reports, I worried that there would be too much of a domestic policy laundry list and not enough time on the case for Iraq, but the structure of the speech ended up working well. Starting with the tax plan was probably wise, as economic woes are in the front of many people's minds, and ending with foreign policy, the most important job of the President, was a good strategy.

The middle of the speech, largely a return to the campaign themes of Compassionate Conservatism, was, in the very best sense, Clintonian: Bush grabbed a number of issues where the Democrats have a traditional advantage (education, health care, the environment) and partially neutralized them. The proposal for hydrogen fuel-cell research, in particular, is a masterstroke. An administration frequently alleged to be owned by Big Oil looks to be going further than anyone else to reduce our dependence on petroleum.

I was particularly happy to hear that Social Security reform is still a stated goal of the administration. Even more important were the encouraging words for democratic revolutionaries in Iran. Bush should be saying things like this more than just once a year.

Complaints: I disagree with the administration on the efficacy of the drug war, turning religious charities into government programs, and criminalizing cloning research, though I can't really expect them to downplay their favorite initiatives just to please me personally. But the one thing I really wonder about is the time spent on AIDS in Africa.

This is a very important issue, and might even be worth a full-length speech on some other occasion. I suppose it adds to the U.S.'s credibility in saying we want to liberate, not conquer, when Bush highlights the American humanitarian agenda. But the State of the Union is generally a time for the President to tell Americans what he's doing for us, and talking at such length about sending our money overseas strikes an odd note.

In cataloging Iraq's sins and re-framing the issue with the burden of proof placed squarely on Iraq, Bush is making up for a lot of lost time convincing and preparing the public. I think he did a pretty good job.

Finally, I want to mention Bush's discussion of North Korea, wherein the administration has made its biggest foreign policy mistakes. As Jonah Goldberg has said, "it's a position a week, because we're in a weak position." In tone, Bush seemed to take a hard line, but emphasized working with our regional allies and pointedly did not speak ill of negotiation, which will probably be a way of running out the clock; right now we're in a race to deploy a missile defense system (which Bush mentioned elsewhere in the speech), and this will dramatically change the rules with North Korea.

THE DEMOCRATIC RESPONSE: Gary who? Governor Locke of Washington looked like he had smeared charcoal marks for eyebrows and talked like a PBS educational series. I'd be surprised if many people listened to his entire speech, but if they did they probably wondered if this is really the best the Dems could do. It's delightful that we are now fighting not over whether to cut taxes, but how to do so, and the Democrats, with their more modest plan, aren't looking like they'll win this argument. They like to point out that the President's plan benefits the upper class more than theirs; they don't like to go into specifics, the way the President did, on what their plan means for modest-income Americans, largely because it would prove inferior.

Locke was at his most off-key discussing conservation. He accused the president of want to drill in Alaska instead of (rather than in addition to) pursuing conservation, immediately after the president had proposed a big chunk of money for hydrogen fuel-cells. The Dems looked totally unprepared for this.

KENNEDY'S TRIAL BALLOON: The report came in right after the speech that Ted Kennedy is planning on calling for a second vote on the Iraq war authorization. This is obviously a test of how well the public received Bush's case against Saddam, and if the polls come back in Bush's favor, Kennedy may back off. It may be wise for the Republicans to press the issue, and make the Democrats regret bringing it up; they can probably still pass it, and it may even be filibuster-proof (i.e., have more than 60 votes). Democrats have little to gain by going on the record again about the war.

(Note: the above was composed last night immediately after the speeches. I'm leaving the three items in one time-stamped post, Andrew Sullivan-style, to preserve continuity.)

Posted by John Tabin at January 29, 2003 10:55 AM