Disgruntled travelers who’ve come back from Bushland — academic John DiIulio, who headed the White House Office for Faith-Based Initiatives, and fired Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, in particular — have noted that the distinctive feature of Bush White House discourse is the endless discussion of the politics of public issues and the virtually nonexistent discussion of policy on its merits. Their accounts have raised hackles in the White House, but President Bush’s State of the Union address Tuesday night was all but proof positive that DiIulio and O’Neill are right.
Has there ever been a State of the Union with fewer initiatives, policies or ideas? Bush’s speech was almost entirely a defense of his greatest hits, such as they are. It was clearly designed to showcase the president’s resolve and contrast it with Howard Dean’s weaknesses. Not by name, of course: Bush disparaged the views of an unspecified but clearly identifiable “some.” “Some” thought that terrorism should be treated as a criminal act, not an act of war, that the Patriot Act could be dispensed with, that the threat of terrorism had even been lifted.
The White House had not scheduled this speech for the day after the Iowa caucuses for nothing. Clearly, Dean was supposed to have emerged on Monday as the Democrats’ prohibitive front-runner. Clearly, the address was meant to provide one long contrast between Bush’s assumed vigilance and Dean’s presumed fecklessness.
But if we know anything about Bush, it’s that he’s not a president for last-minute revisions, much less, God save us, improvisation. If the speech was intended as an attack on Dean, well, the president would just go ahead and deliver it even though Dean is now anything but the Democrats’ prohibitive front-runner. Oh, the themes Bush invoked could be broad-brushed onto the Democrats as a whole, but all that innuendo that Karl Rove had so painstakingly planted would just have to strike with distinctly less force.
As for the rest — what was the rest? It was a defensive speech in content and tone. The president had not been wrong about the weapons of mass destruction; conceptually, at least, they were still out there. His tax cuts had turned the economy around. (Their failure to have generated any significant number of new jobs, of course, went unsurprisingly unnoted.) Tax cuts for investment were again hailed as the surest path to recovery, even though the objects of those investments — American corporations — have decided to do their hiring abroad.
Bush extolled the troglodytic and plutocratic crap that Congress has enacted over the past three years. He lobbied for Congress to renew or make permanent those troglodytic and plutocratic programs, such as the Patriot Act and the tax cuts on the rich. He returned to the case for the troglodytic and plutocratic crap that Congress has somehow neglected to enact, such as privatizing Social Security and placing restrictions on lawsuits against business. As for new ideas:
Well, he came out against steroid use in professional sports. He asked for $23 million to do more drug testing in schools. He said he wanted to expand health coverage more, though nothing he suggested would accomplish that in the slightest. And he endorsed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage if judges continued to insist on it, but pledged to campaign nicely on the issue, so as not to offend sensitive suburban voters who don’t want to have to think about it.
Missing from the speech was any attempt to connect with the large minority of Americans who don’t think the economy has turned around, and the considerable majority of Americans who think Bush favors the rich and big business and is indifferent to their needs and concerns. There was nothing serious on making colleges more affordable, or prescription drugs more obtainable, or retirement more secure. There was nothing on increasing the employment rates of the American people, though there was a pledge to establish a system of low-wage guest workers.
Clearly, Bush and Rove think that Bush will sell himself to the American people as a guy who’s tough on defense and shares the cultural values of hard-pressed but socially traditional working-class voters. Two major new polls, in The New York Times and the Washington Post, suggest that this strategy isn’t working all that well, that a majority of Americans don’t think Bush is on their side, that when matched up against an unnamed Democrat, Bush essentially is running even.
In the end, the State of the Union wasn’t much on policy, and it wasn’t much on politics, either. Despite his huge advantage in funding, George Bush is beatable come November. The state of the union is pretty bad, and the state of the president is — or should be — nervous.