The compassionate warrior. That’s the image Bush offered in his second State of the Union address, as he deftly blended his 2000 campaign schtick (and all of its policy disingenuousness) with his post-9/11 position as the nation’s protector. He talked softly about helping drug addicts, at-risk children, and AIDS sufferers at home and in Africa. And he waved one damn big stick at Saddam Hussein, practically promising war. He was, to be polite, less than honest on several fronts.
The instant-analysts were right to point out that Bush essentially delivered a double feature. Spectacle One was his standard policy speech, with a few new special effects. Spectacle Two was a pseudo-declaration of war. In the opener, Bush claimed credit for his 2001 tax “relief” package (without explaining why he considers it “relief” to give the bulk of his nearly $2 trillion in tax cuts to the top 5 percent); for the so-called education reform legislation (without mentioning the extensive criticism the law has recently received from state officials and education experts worried about its real-world consequences); for the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security (without mentioning his initial opposition to the birth of this super-bureaucracy); and for the corporate-crime measure passed last year (without mentioning the White House’s efforts to trim some of the stricter provisions). He then proceeded with a familiar script: new tax cuts that favor the well-heeled, Social Security privatization, Medicare reform, his energy plan, and limiting medical malpractice awards. In doing so, Bush replayed many of his classic fibs.
Tax cuts. Hailing his latest tax-cut plan, Bush tossed out misleading numbers. He claimed that on average 92 million tax-filers will gain almost $1,100. This is a meaningless figure. As Citizens for Tax Justice has noted, the bottom 80 percent of earners (those making $77,000 or less) would generally receive much less than this amount. The average gain for taxpayers in the $46,000-to-$77,000 slice (the second-from-the-top quintile) is $657. People below that would get much less. And Bush pitched his proposal to eliminate the tax on certain dividend income as a way to help 10 million seniors. How considerate. He left out the fact that nearly three-quarters of this assistance for seniors would go to old folks making $75,000 or more. He referred to his plan as fair, without addressing the criticism that half of its overall benefits would end up in the pockets of the top 5 percent, at a time when homeland security needs are not being fully funded and an expensive war-and-occupation looms.
Social Security. Bush gave a big wet kiss to would-be privatizers (yes, I know, partial-privatizers). He revived his call for allowing younger workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in retirement accounts they would control. Given that many Republicans have distanced themselves from privatization in the post-Enron period–and that the White House has, for its part, refused to use the word “privatization”–the privateers had said, pre-speech, that even one line in the address would be an encouraging sign. They got the one line. But Bush declined to note how he would pay for this change in the Social Security system, which could well cost $1 trillion. (The huge cost occurs because the money taken out of the system is already slated to pay for the ongoing obligations of the program. Social Security is not a pension plan, but a pay-as-you-go program, with today’s workers paying for the benefits received by today’s retirees.) To raise the banner of partial-privatization without confronting the financial consequences is irresponsible.