It is no secret that, in this era of spin uber alles, State of the Union addresses are nothing more than public-relations events. At best, they offer presidents a chance to rally the troops. But, with George Bush’s approval ratings falling beneath those of Richard Nixon in the thick of the Watergate scandal, he has very few troops left to rally. Even Republicans are fleeing the president’s camp, and nothing he said Tuesday night will bring them back.

That does not mean, however, that this State of Union address was completely irrelevant.

In fact, it will be remembered for having produced what could well be the worst domestic policy proposal of an administration that is not without accomplishment when it comes to turning the wheels of government to make the bad into something truly awful.

What is being referred to by the White House as the President’s State of the Union Health Care Initiative is, even by the standards of this administration, a truly nightmarish proposal.

Employing the administration’s Orwellian flair for language, the President is pitching his plan as “health care reform.”

The accurate term would actually be health care deform.

The President wants the federal government to begin treating contributions from major corporations to help cover the health insurance costs of their employees — most of which were won through decades of organizing, struggle and bargaining by the unions that represent those employees — as taxable income. In effect, workers who have quality coverage would be punished, as would the firms that provide that coverage.

The Bush plan’s race-to-the-bottom approach to health care policy is being pitched as a way to encourage Americans who currently lack insurance coverage to go out and buy it — and then to take advantage of an expanded tax deduction for individuals and families that purchase plans.

The problem, of course, while the Bush plan penalizes those who are insured, it does not begin to provide enough support for those who lack it.

Thus, if the Bush initiative were implemented, it would lower the quality of health-care coverage for those who have it while failing to provide it to all of those who lack it. “The President’s so-called health care proposal won’t help the uninsured, most of whom have limited incomes and are already in low tax brackets,” explains the key player in Congress on health care issues, Congressman Pete Stark, the California Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee’s powerful health subcommittee. “But it will hurt middle-income Americans, whose employers will shift even more cost and risk to their employees.”

Stark fears that the proposal highlighted in his State of the Union address would actually encourage employers to stop providing insurance to workers who are now reasonably well covered. “Under the guise of tax breaks, the president is pursuing a policy designed to destroy the employer-based health care system through which 160 million people receive coverage,” says the congressman, who is viewed by Democrats and Republicans as Washington’s most zealous advocate for expanding access to health care.

Stark is not crying wolf.

Paul Fronstin, director of the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute’s Health Research and Education Program, says of the Bush plan: “I think [the President is] giving employers the incentive to get out of the business of providing health benefits.”

Say what you will about all the domestic-policy damage that Bush has done — to civil liberties, to education, to health and safety regulation, to race relations, to basic principles of fairness. You will still be hard pressed to come up with a worse idea than helping the few corporations that still provide quality health-care benefits to offload that responsibility.

And just be glad, be very glad, that Pete Stark is in charge of the committee that Bush’s “reforms” would have to go through.


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