When Congressional Democrats asked Governor Gary Locke of Washington state to deliver the party’s response to President Bush’s State of the Union address, they ceded what could have been be their highest profile media moment of the year to someone who does not sit in the House or Senate. It was a mistake.
Locke is an able if not particularly exciting administrator, and he had some good things to say about the way that states — and the people who live in them — could be harmed by administration proposals to roll back environmental protections, skew tax cuts to benefit the richest Americans and privatize Medicare. But he danced around foreign policy questions, and he never landed a serious blow on Bush’s domestic agenda.
If ever there was a moment when Democrats in Washington needed to ask someone who is in the thick of the fight on Capitol Hill to describe their differences with the administration, it was following this year’s State of the Union address. After the November, 2002, elections put conservative Republicans in charge of the House and Senate, and with the Bush administration now moving aggressively to launch a war with Iraq, advance an economically preposterous “stimulus” plan and nominate right-wing judicial activists for openings on every federal bench, Democrats in Congress could not afford to surrender the rebuttal spot that remains one of the few openings for a serious critique of the president’s highest-profile annual address.
To be fair to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, they did organize a “prebuttal” press conference on Monday, where Pelosi did a decent job of arguing that the administration needs to broaden its definition of security to include economic security at home. Daschle showed some rhetorical flair when he announced that, “The state of our union today is anxious. The triple threat of war, terrorism and recession are combining to make Americans unsure about their future and unclear about the course our nation is taking.”
But, for the most part, Daschle still seemed to be having a hard time presenting a surer, clearer vision of the course Democrats would set. Neither Locke’s rebuttal nor the Daschle-Pelosi “prebuttal” sounded like the sort of rip-roaring alternative that might energize opponents of the administration policies in Washington or beyond. For that, Americans needed to search out reports of Tuesday’s Alternative State of the Union session in the Capitol, where members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus mounted a devastating assault on administration policies.
“We are holding an Alternative State of the Union address because we believe that Americans deserve a vision of a future of peace and justice rather than war and economic hardship and inequality,” said California Democrat Barbara Lee, who co-chairs the 53-member caucus, as she opened the session. “At last year’s State of the Union, President Bush gave us the axis of evil. Today, we face crises and possible war on multiple fronts. In fact, we face possible endless war because the doctrine of preemption knows no limits. It also brings us no security.”