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.
Healthcare. Spooked by the possibility that healthcare could once again become a potent political topic–Bill Clinton’s use of this issue in 1992 helped sink W.’s dad–Bush called for “high-quality affordable health for all Americans” [sic]. He left out the word “care.” In any event, he said he favored a system in which every American has a good insurance policy and can choose his or her own doctor. How to achieve that? Well, that he didn’t say. (During the campaign, he proposed a tax credit that was too small to help most of the uninsured.) Bush did explain he wanted to “begin with” Medicare, the federal insurance program that covers the elderly, and that the first priority was adding prescription drug coverage to the system. Seniors, he asserted, should be able to keep their coverage “just the way it is”–that is, be permitted to stick with the doctor of their liking–and have the “choice” of a health care plan that provides prescription drugs. The rub: according to a variety of media reports, the likely Bush plan would offer a prescription drug plan to seniors who enrolled in a private HMO or something equivalent. Seniors would then face this “choice”–your doctor or your drugs. The TelePrompTer must have dropped the paragraph explaining this.
As he did during the campaign, Bush packaged his conservative proposals (which include a call to criminalize late-term abortions) with ain’t-I-compassionate measures. Nearly half-a-billion bucks to bring mentors to disadvantaged kids. Six hundred million dollars to help 300,000 drug addicts receive treatment. (Reportedly, they will receive vouchers that could be used to pay faith-based outfits as well as rehab centers.) He spoke movingly of the devastation wrought by AIDS in Africa–30 million people afflicted, 50,000 receiving the medicine they need–and proposed spending several billion dollars a year to prevent 7 million new cases there and to treat at least 2 million. And in addition to his drill-and-drill energy plan, he promised to push for $1.2 billion for developing emissions-free, hydrogen-powered cars. That’s a start, though hardly a crash-course.
Big tax cuts for the rich, a nod to the privatizers who have their eyes on Social Security and Medicare, and support for the antiabortion movement, coupled with concern for the environment, poor kids, addicts, and deadly-sick Africans. Karl Rove sure earns his pay. Bush may be slipping in the polls regarding his performance on economic matters. But the politicos of the White House do know how to sell core-Republicanism as well as it can be sold. The window-dressing may not be enough to keep the store afloat–particularly if Bush’s plan to prime the pumps of millionaires somehow does not lead to the creation of millions of jobs. But there’s always Plan B–war.
From the evil of AIDS (“a plague of nature,” Bush said, not-too-coyly distancing himself from a recent, controversial appointee who had blamed AIDS on gays and was forced to withdraw his name), Bush turned toward the evil of Saddam. He asserted that “we are winning” the war on terrorism and listed several al Qaeda leaders who have been arrested or who–nod, nod, wink, wink–“no longer are a problem.” And he cited several homeland-security measures underway. In this category–which includes 50,000 new screeners at airports and an early warning system for biological attacks–he included a ballistic missile defense system. But his cherished antimissile program has yet to be proven successful. Bush talked about it as if it were up and running. Comparing the screeners (real) with BMD (not real) was a sleight of hand. And he reported that the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon were putting together a joint center to analyze terrorist threats. That’s not a bad idea–if these agencies can overcome the bureaucratic tensions that always hinder such efforts. But not much of what he listed addressed what Bush termed “the gravest danger in the war on terrorism”: a rogue state developing weapons of mass destruction and handing them over to terrorists.
So Saddam must go. Or sort of. After quickly mentioning Iran and North Korea–Bush had to stay true to his “axis of evil” line in last year’s SOTU–he made (once again) his case for war against Iraq. In short: Saddam has defied the UN for 12 years. His government has not accounted for some biological and chemical weapons, or their possible components. In the 1990s, Iraq had a robust nuclear development program. (The day before Bush’s speech, UN inspectors noted that there is no sign such a program now exists.) The Brits say Iraq sought weapons-usable uranium. US intelligence says the Iraqis are hiding thousands of documents, sanitizing inspections sites, and are having Iraqi intelligence officers pose as weapons scientists. And–to top it off–Saddam is assisting and protecting terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. All this is serious stuff. Details now should follow–particularly on the al Qaeda-Saddam link. (Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush said, is scheduled to brief the UN Security Council on this and other matters next week. Presumably, the American public might be provided the supporting material as well.)
Bush certainly argued effectively that Saddam is not to be trusted. But he did not counter the argument that inspections should continue, that they did work to constrain and contain Saddam in the 1990s, and that they could do so now. This is how Bush presented the alternative: “trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy and it is not an option.” Now who among the responsible advocates that?
Bush did not claim the threat from Saddam is immediate. In fact, he essentially conceded it was not. He noted he wants to make sure such a threat is not “permitted to fully and suddenly emerge.” Apparently, he takes his doctrine of preemption seriously. Moreover, he expanded his reasons for confronting Saddam beyond protecting the United States or enforcing the UN resolutions (whether the UN wants the United States to do so with an invasion or not). Bush described the grisly forms of torture employed by Saddam and his thugs, highlighting the practice in which Saddam’s henchmen torture children in front of their parents. “If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning,” Bush declared–and who can argue with that? He told the Iraqi people that they deserve “liberation.” But it’s back to that old question: is this a war for disarmament or for regime change? “If he does not fully disarm, ” Bush vowed, “we will lead a coalition to disarm him.” Suppose Saddam actually does disarm (merely for the sake of this rhetorical point). Is Bush then going to leave the Iraqis unliberated and in the hands of such evil? If not, should the Tibetans start planning for their liberation?
Bush’s remarks pointed to war. (Could he be bluffing?) The more he decries Saddam, the more he points to the possible threat Saddam poses, the more Bush is obligated to act. If Saddam cannot be trusted–and he cannot–then how can Bush (and the world) ever be certain that the Iraqi dictator has indeed fully disarmed and given up entirely on the pursuit of awful weapons? In Bush’s either/or view of the war on terrorism, Saddam can never be on the right side of the line. And Bush has seemingly rejected the notion that Saddam can boxed in, that continuous, robust inspections can inhibit any Iraqi WMD development. Consequently, war must come. As for those pesky allies who are squeamish about a new Gulf War, Bush declared, “The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others.” This line, as far as I could tell, received the loudest applause of the evening.
The speech was not so much an evaluation of the state of the union, but more a report on the Bush presidency. He has reacted to the recent chatter about his own possible troubles by sticking with his bold strokes. And the Democrats’ first-responder, Washington Governor Gary Locke (a.k.a. the first Chinese-American governor in the United States), took a few pokes at Bush, dealing more with Speech One than Speech Two. He slapped Bush’s tax plan as “upside-down economics.” With war, relieve-the-rich tax cuts, Social Security privatization and Medicare reform, Bush has set up several mother-of-all-battles for himself. This is one compassionate warrior who seems eager for combat.