Bush: On a roll, not lookin' back
If President Bush feels any sense of hesitation about his ambitious plans for the second term, he certainly didn't show it in his State of the Union address last night. (Transcript available from Washington Post) Bush really does seem to be getting the hang of speechmaking, while the Democrats in Congress seem to have lost their grip on reality, as evidenced by their atrocious boos and catcalls. Defying conventional wisdom about the politically lethal "third rail" of Social Security, Bush grappled head on with the problem. This time he avoided the term "crisis," fortunately, but left no doubt that the long-term prospects are indeed dire. (This reminds me of last year's red herring about Bush's alleged statement that Iraq posed an "imminent threat," when he in fact had said repeatedly that it was a "gathering threat.") Many Democrats booed when he said the system would be bankrupt by 2042, apparently offended by the idea of having to contemplate something so far in the future. No one can predict economic trends that far in advance, of course, but simple prudence dictates that we make allowances for variable scenarios. Step One: Remove head from sand...
To his credit, the President offered a variety of alternative approaches -- including past proposals made by Democrats Bill Clinton and the late Pat Moynihan -- oriented around the basic goal of giving individuals more choice about their retirement savings. This shows that he is not trying to impose a particular plan or serve some particular interests, but is genuinely trying to solve a national problem. Making sure that anyone born before 1951 won't have to worry about any changes is a good step toward calming nerves. As for the word game, I have shared the hesitation of some moderate Republicans such as Sen. Olympia Snowe about the term "privatizing" Social Security, which instills fear among some people. In my view, there's no need to give the Democrats any more rhetorical ammunition in their obstructionist campaign. (See below.) The proper goal should to restructure Social Security in a way that constrains the ever-inflating entitlement payouts without leaving truly needy people out in the cold. Whether or not one happens to agree with Bush, that broad objective is at least something that reasonable people can agree on.
The President also devoted a considerable amount of time to the tort reform issue, likewise eliciting partisan cheers and boos. He tied the problem of frivolous lawsuits to the rising cost of health care, small business vitality, and overall productivity. One comment seemed out of place to me: "I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline." In fact, Republicans legislators last year showed an increasing fondness for old fashioned Democrat-style pork barrel projects. The FY 2005 budget was stringent in many departments, mostly because of wartime funding priorities, but taxpayer vigilance and activism from groups like the Concord Coalition will be necessary to keep a lid on things.
Bush saved the biggest parts for last, when he put "meat" on his strategy for pursuing the long-term global war against terrorism. Obviously encouraged by the successful elections in Iraq, he bluntly called on the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to begin allowing more citizen participation in public affairs. This made my jaw drop, and must have rattled nerves across the entire Middle East. Then he turned to Syria, which has served as a refuge for terrorists operating in Iraq, and Iran, whose ruling mullahs squelched a burgeoning pro-democracy movement last year. Without making a threat, he put both those countries on notice that the United States would not be indifferent to policies that sustain hatred and violence. Not many people have taken Bush's pro-freedom rhetoric at face value, and the possibility that is really is serious poses the prospect of massive upheaval in the region. [Good upheaval, mind you -- like Eastern Europe in 1989.]
In terms of symbolism, the moment when Iraqi human rights activist Safia Taleb al-Suhail embraced the mother of fallen Marine Corps Sergeant Byron Norwood in the audience gallery was simply breathtaking. If that spontaneous gesture does not convince skeptics that our soldiers' sacrifices in Iraq are paying off, then nothing will. A cynic might ask if an American soldier's life is worth an Iraqi citizen's right to vote. If the ratio were one life to one voter, then perhaps not. But look at the big picture: We are talking about 1,400 U.S. war dead so far, as compared to 25 million newly freed Iraqis. I can't speak of the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq, but the sacrifice seems to me to be yielding benefits many times over.
In sum, Bush has seized the moment. He senses his power, he has a clear vision where to lead the country, and he can count on a large, enthusiastic base to carry forward his agenda. As long as remains focused on practical medium-term goals and doesn't fall victim to egotism or other tragic foibles, he stands a real chance of defying expectations and achieving historical greatness.
Are Democrats suicidal?
In the Democrats' response to the President's address, Sen. Harry Reid (who has replaced Tom Daschle as Senate Minority Leader) tried to strike a folksy note with some odd personal anecdotes. What struck me most was his call for an "American Marshall Plan," as if our country were in the throes of a deep depression. What an ironic contrast to the shining beacon of opportunity that the U.S.A. still represents to the millions of job seekers from around the world who try to cross our borders every year. (If anything, we need less opportunity!) For her part, Rep. Nancy Pelosi reiterated the negativity about Iraq that has become the dogmatic mantra of the Democratic side.
Along these lines, it is worth recalling that Sen. Ted Kennedy made an angry speech last week President Bush yesterday to begin withdrawing U.S. troops, calling the president's Iraq policy "a catastrophic failure." His view of reality is so far off it is no longer even funny. Ironically, a U.S. withdrawal at this crucial moment would be extremely "dangerous and reckless," which is how he described the present course of the Bush administration. How anyone takes him seriously any more is beyond me. See Washington Post.
As for the activist networks, MoveOn.org has begun running television spots aimed at stopping any of Bush's Social Security and tort reform proposals. Once again, their actions refute their progressive rhetoric, confirming that their real agenda is overtly status quo, if not reactionary. What seems to be happening is the converse of the old "Vietnam syndrome" -- the Democrats and most on the Left are so wrapped up in their own spin of recent events and interpretations of history that they have completely lost their political bearings. If they persist in badmouthing the accomplishments of American armed forces and strangling opportunities for financial growth in the younger generation, they will have aliented such a big portion of the American electorate that they will essentially put themselves out of business. Has a political party ever committed mass suicide before?