By Joel Wendland
That was the question I considered repeatedly as I heard George W. Bush repeat the same tired phrases and hackneyed platitudes in tonight's state of the union address he has often advanced as deep thinking and serious policy in the past.
Bush muddled his way through domestic policy and issues, during which he talked about New Orleans – two years too late – and economic issues – more tax cuts for the rich – and balancing the budget – something he hasn't even come close to doing in 7 years with Republican control of Congress for 6 of those years. He plodded on with demands for more taxpayer dollars for religious organizations that support his ideological viewpoint and rejecting science.
He prattled on about health savings accounts, ignoring the best analysis that has shown HSA's do nothing to make health care affordable and only help upper income families to enjoy additional tax breaks. The average income of HSA users is about $133,000, and middle and low-income families gain no tax benefit from using them.
He rejected out of hand serious health care reform – even as an economic stimulus concept. For crying out loud, how many working families would be happy to put their dollars back into the economy if they knew they could afford insurance premiums and medical care? How much of a no-brainer is that? And imagine what would happen if working families paid little or nothing for health care? Imagine the immediate savings for corporations with big employee premiums if the right kind of health care reform passed.
He did visibly anger some Republicans with talk of needing to address global warming, but he offered no new, or, for that matter, any way to accomplish it.
It quickly came evident that Bush was simply going through the motions, repeating the same tired and failed ideological talking points of the ultra right, hammering away on taxes, and issuing veto threats about spending he suddenly opposes. Despite warning against earmarks tonight, Bush succeeded in adding 580 earmarks into veterans appropriation bill in 2007, including earmarks for a Laura Bush library program and his father's foundation.
Recall that he never vetoed a single Republican spending bill that added about $5 trillion to the US debt before Democrats swept to power in 2006.
Bush also insisted that Democratic promises to roll back tax cuts for the richest Americans or even failing to make his tax cuts for the rich permanent is a tax hike.
But there is one gaping hole in his theory: Bush's tax and trade policies have not stopped (and can't stop) the looming recession. Indeed, his ideological penchant for deregulation and killing oversight has led to one of the biggest credit collapses since the Great Depression.
Even the International Monetary Fund Director General Dominique Strauss-Kahn now admits the need for regulation to prevent the kind of collapse created by the housing bubble and the subprime lending crisis.
All signs point to huge splits in the ruling class about the validity of the ultra-right economic argument (for various reasons) and a shift toward a window of opportunity to rebuild and invent new social democratic institutions that ultimately could strengthen the working class for its protracted struggle.
On foreign policy, Bush rattled off a long list of countries he doesn't like and events that took place during his presidency. But their was no urgency or even much threat behind it.
The Democratic sweep in 2006 has delivered a brutal blow to Bush's presidency, but his veto pen and Constitutional authority still give him great power to do great damage.
We heard remarks like "Al Qaeda is on the run," we'll bring justice to the perpetrators of 9/11, a re-hashed version of the old line that "when Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down," Iraqi democracy is visible in their "ink-stained thumbs," and much-doubted claims about how the enormous domestic security apparatus built in the US under his presidency thwarted a planned terrorist attack on a Los Angeles building. He even repeated the claim that "a free Iraq will deny Al Qaeda a safe haven," apparently forgetting about the safe havens it has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
None of this was new. Some of it unsubstantiated. All of it gave Bush's speech the appearance of a "night to get through," as Time magazine writer Margaret Carlson said on MSNBC. Keith Olbermann called it little more than "the edited highlights of the Bush presidency." Chris Matthews said it was a list of "New Years' resolutions never achieved."
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS), in her Democratic Party response to the speech, called for a politics that moves beyond ideological division to focus immediately on three key things: passing S-CHIP as a means of creating a long-term institutional economic stimulus for working families, which Bush has vetoed twice; changing course in Iraq, which Bush has vetoed several times; and, changed course on energy policy. "Join us Mr.President," she said, and together "the new American majority," a concept Barack Obama has hit on in his recent speeches, can make huge changes before you leave office.
In a brief interview on MSNBC following the Democratic response, Barack Obama described Bush's speech as "warmed over past state of the union speeches." Obama called for an urgent strategy for dealing with the economy, both short and long term, including expanded unemployment insurance. He also said, "We have to have a plan to exit from Iraq." Obama rejected the promise of endless war embedded in Bush's proposed "status-of-forces" treaty with Iraq that would make occupation and combat operations permanent.
Bush also made vague promises and threats about peace in Israel and the Occupied Territories, but other than gaining applause when he called for a two state solution to the crisis, unfortunately, offered little in the way of specifics, urgency, or seriousness.
Clearly, this speech was not intended to govern as a president with a serious agenda in his final year. It was little more than pandering to the extreme right-wing base of his party in order to avoid leaving office with the lowest approval rating on record. He is hoping for a couple-point bump to get him past the Nixon dip, I guess.