Wednesday, January 21, 2004

SOTU thoughts

At Reason's Web site, my longtime friend and fellow Tar Heel John Hood offers this compelling argument why -- despite an uninspiring field of Democratic challengers -- a second Bush term may not be a sure bet. John's point goes beyond the apparent meltdown of Howard Dean and the emergence of seemingly more electable Democratic rivals post-Iowa:

The problem for Bush and the Republicans is that if the security issue gets muted during the 2004 campaign, a good chunk of their political base will get uncomfortable. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the limited-government, free-market faction of their coalition—including mainstream Reagan Republicans, old-style balanced-budget moderates, and small-l libertarians—have been dismayed by Bush's dismal record on federal spending and entitlements. Non-defense discretionary spending under Bush and a Republican Congress soared by nearly 19 percent in two years, a rate not seen in decades and one making Bill Clinton look like Calvin Coolidge. ...

There was a way for Bush to offer a more inspiring message, one calculated to ease the frustrations of fiscal conservatives and giving them the sense that any compromises on spending and entitlements in the short run would result in smaller government in the long run. That's why early reports about President Bush's State of the Union speech were so intriguing. They suggested that he might tie together his advocacy of expanded IRAs, savings-based health reform, and personal Social Security accounts to articulate a rhetorical vision of an ownership society to replace the current syndrome of dependency on government to finance the big-ticket items of life: buying a home, educating children, suffering a major illness or disability, losing a job, and retiring.

It was also an opportunity for Bush to toss in a real wild card, say, to call for a flat tax or national sales tax or a way to place the high-tax technocrats on the defensive. While Bush did utter the phrase "ownership society" once in the speech, it seemed like a throwaway line, of no more importance than his bizarre aside about steroids.

If indeed the Democrats nominate a perceived moderate, a Kerry, or an Edwards, and the party can somehow get beyond the odd (and hypocritical) class-warfare pitches (megamillionaires vilifying wealth is a pathetic message), independent voters and small-government types who are nominally Republican might well vote for a Democrat, pining for the days of divided government. Or they might stay home. This may not deny Bush his second term but could cost the GOP a seat or two in Congress and end any talk of the sort of "mandate" which might allow a lame-duck president to shepherd through dynamic, market-oriented reforms such as personal retirement accounts or ending the advantageous tax treatment given to health insurance. In any event, Bush truly missed an opportunity to articulate an agenda that was not a Clintonian laundry list of new programs but would instead cause a buzz, and excite his limted-government constituency, who could use a little love. The president may have guaranteed that he'll have a run for his money.

Other political stuff

Not going to talk about Howard Dean's crackup but instead the Democratic response to the SOTU. Who embalmed Nancy Pelosi? She makes Al Gore look like Frank Luntz. Talk about a cold fish. While Tom Daschle can appear avuncular (superficially, anyway), Pelosi was frighteningly stiff. And her discomfort shone through in an interview I saw on CNN this morning, when she did nothing more than regurgitate the talking points she made Tuesday. When the interviewer tried to engage her in a conversation rather than let her drone on and read from the cue cards, Pelosi got rattled, but still struck to the script which was etched on the software package that must stand in for her brain.

All this makes me think either: 1) The Democratic congressional leadership doesn't really operate under any sort of governing philosophy that they can discuss and defend ... it's nothing more than talking points. All they want to do is protect their turf; or 2) They do operate by a philosophy that's so extreme that they dare not explain it. Instead, they work from a boilerplate script that's both inoffensive and inane. In any event, you'd think the Democrats could find somebody, somewhere, who could pleasantly and articulately carry the party's message better than those folks.

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