I was disappointed with the Democratic response but not surprised. More than anything, we need a real fighter in the leadership of the party and it wouldn't hurt for that person to have some charisma. I keep praying for that person to emerge. Maybe Barack Obama when he has a little more experience but so far he's been a disappointment too. Still, the shouts of "no" from the democrats on the floor were refreshing. Nice to know somebody's got some guts.
On domestic matters, the speech was mostly predictable. [Bush] praised his tax cuts and his record on job creation. (The United States has added 2.3 million new jobs in the past year, he said, without disclosing that the economy needs to create about 2 million jobs a year to keep up with population growth.) He claimed his forthcoming budget would lead to cutting the deficit in half by 2009--even though budget analysts have said he is relying upon phony numbers and false assumptions. He said he would increase the size of Pell grants for college students. (He promised to do so last year and did not.) He assailed "junk lawsuits" and asserted that the nation's economic performance was being "held back" by asbestos lawsuits. (Asbestos lawsuits? Who knew that was the problem?) When he made a vague reference to medical savings accounts, Republicans in the chambers applauded more loudly than when he called for a community health center in every poor county. Bush vowed to revive his defeated energy program and called for tax reform--without stating what changes he'd like to see in the tax code.
There were surprises. Throwing red meat to the red-staters, he made a rather big deal of gay marriage, noting he supports a constitutional amendment "to protect the institution of marriage" (note that he didn't say "to ban gay marriage") for "the good of...children." This was a political correction, for Bush had recently peeved social conservatives by saying there was no need to push the antigay amendment since there were not enough votes for the measure in the Senate. And while Bush referred to the "culture of life" and decried activist judges, he said nothing directly about abortion. Can we then presume then he believes gay marriage is a more urgent matter than a practice his supporters compare to mass murder? Bush also addressed the issue of capital punishment: not by calling for more executions but by advocating more extensive use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful convictions and proposing more funding to train defense attorneys who handle capital cases. (Too bad he didn't do that when he was governor of Texas.) He said that Laura Bush would head an initiative to keep young men out of gangs. There was no mention of the mission to Mars that Bush announced in his last State of the Union speech.
No doubt, the most anticipated part of his speech was his pitch for messing with Social Security. Bush has dramatically improved his rhetorical case for change. He made it appear he was open to many ideas, and he slyly referred to previous proposals for reform that had come from Democrats. He noted that using current payroll taxes for private retirement accounts for younger workers was not a fix for Social Security but an effort to give those under the age of 55 "a better deal." He did not use the word "crisis," but he did deploy his melodramatic and misleading argument for reform. This created the most interesting political moment of the night. As Bush remarked, "By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt," Democratic legislators shouted, "No, no...." (The Congressional Budget Office has said that come 2052 the Social Security system will only be able to pay about three-quarters of the scheduled benefits. This is a problem; it is not bankruptcy.) As Bush continued in this vein, the Democrats kept up the protest: "No, no, no...." It was reminiscent of question time in the British Parliament.
Yes, it does. Let's hope, indeed, the person who understands that difference emerges as a true opposition leader.
Which brings us to the Democratic response. It was middling at best, perhaps awful. Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader, tried mightily hard to adopt the language of values. He took the folksy route, reminding viewers he had grown up in a small town in Nevada among hard-rock miners. He referred to a ten-year-old boy who recently told Reid that when he grows up he wants to be a senator. This, Reid noted, was evidence that no one has to tell the children of America to dream big dreams. Reid covered all the bases, critiquing Bush's economic policies and pointing out the flaws and dangers of partially privatizing Social Security. But he was not much of a match for a president riding the wave of self-proclaimed victory in Iraq.
Still, Reid fared better than House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. She proved that she can read a TelePrompTer without blinking or changing her facial expression. Reid went for the down-home approach. Pelosi was a Stepford Democrat. She expressed no emotion. She did not modulate her speech. She looked like she was reading words written by someone else, not sharing convictions that burn in her soul. Handling the national security portion of the Democratic response, she served up all the usual--and correct--criticisms of Bush. But she scored no points. In this arena, delivery counts as much as--no, make that more than--substance. On Iraq, she repeated the Kerry plan: accelerate training of Iraqi security forces, rev up the reconstruction, and intensify regional diplomacy. The goal, she said, is a "much smaller American presence" by the next election, which is scheduled for the end of the year. But it was hard to imagine her swaying anyone who wasn't already a Bush-basher. Pelosi looked like she had to be there. Bush looked like he was relishing the moment. Such a difference matters much.