As State of the Union addresses go, last night’s was pretty good. Anchored by the ever-important restatement of the President’s bold foreign policy vision, the speech made the apparently inevitable devolution into a domestic policy laundry list with relative grace: Just as the foreign policy section pitted tough engagement with the world against an isolationist foreign policy, the economic policy section pitted “keeping America competitive” against an isolationist economic policy. (Whether or not isolationism really describes the dominant challenges to Bush’s policies is certainly open to debate; my point here is simply the rhetorical elegance of the construction.) But the real political strength of the speech was in how it forced the worst stereotypes of the Democratic Party into the foreground by virtue of the opposition’s reactions.
Take the passage where the President threw down the gauntlet on the NSA spying issue:
It is said that prior to the attacks of September 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy. We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to al-Qaeda operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late. So to prevent another attack — based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute — I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America. Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have — and Federal courts have approved the use of that authority. Appropriate Members of Congress have been kept informed. This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaeda, we want to know about it — because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.
The Republican half of the chamber rose in standing ovation. What did the Democratic half of the chamber do? Stayed seated, with Hillary Clinton shaking her head and smiling. Democrats are intent on framing this issue as a case of Bush breaking the law to spy on Americans. (Liberal writers routinely state flatly that the program was illegal, as if this were a simple fact rather than a deduction from speculation about how the program actually worked.) Democrats very much do not want to be seen as arguing against fighting al-Qaeda. Yet here they were, appearing to side against the notion that we want to know about al-Qaeda’s communications.
There were other moments in the national security section of the speech when Democrats stayed seated at politically inopportune times, but the most striking moment of the speech was when they simply handed the President a gift. Consider Bush’s lines about Social Security:
Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security, yet the rising cost of entitlements is a problem that is not going away — and with every year we fail to act, the situation gets worse. So tonight, I ask you to join me in creating a commission to examine the full impact of Baby Boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
This commission should include Members of Congress of both parties, and offer bipartisan answers. We need to put aside partisan politics, work together, and get this problem solved.
On paper, this is a retreat: a tepid non-policy has replaced the ambitious ideas laid out at last year’s address. But the Democrats clapped and hooted as soon as Bush said “Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security,” giving Bush an opening to turn his bromide into a scathing attack: When he said “partisan politics,” he had a visual aid to point to.
Suddenly it was as if Bush said “we mustn’t act like clowns,” and the entire Democratic caucus had shown up in multicolor wigs and greasepaint.
Though not in much danger of losing either chamber of Congress this November, the GOP is playing defense this year against the very real prospect of a diminished majority, and many congressmen are reluctant to bring anything big and controversial into their electoral fights this year.
There’s no denying that the relatively small-bore agenda that the President laid out last night was a sign of political weakness. But if the scene in the Capitol was any indication, Republicans do still have one thing going for them: They’ll be running against Democrats.
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