The Long View 2007-01-24: The State of the Union

Senator James WebbBy United States Senate -, Public Domain,

Senator James Webb

By United States Senate -, Public Domain,

This The Long View post is brief, so I will be similarly brief: I still think you could assemble an interesting majority coalition in American politics that was all-in for universal healthcare, moderately skeptical about immigration, and just a little bit anti-free trade. I don’t expect this to happen, because party alignments are durable and hard to change, but John poked around these ideas for years and I think he was on to something.

The State of the Union

Unlike Saddam Hussein's execution, last night's State of the Union Address was a model of courtesy on the part of both the audience and the guest of honor. We may legitimately wonder, though, whether both ceremonies will have a similar outcome. These are the points that struck me:

Balancing the federal budget in five years: This is better than promising to balance the budget in 50 years. The people who make the promise will at least still be alive in five years to comment on the state of things then. However, five years is the horizon you choose in federal budgeting when you want to do something now without being incommoded by actual concern for the future.

Expanding health insurance: I understood, after a fashion, the press explanations of the president's proposal, but not the explanation the president gave last night. Still, it was clear that the proposal was based on the expansion of the deductibility of health-insurance premiums, a mechanism which is wholly irrelevant to the problem. He did support federal subsidies to the states that are experimenting with universal-coverage programs, though he took care not to call them that.

Immigration Reform: This was the item toward which the reaction of the president's audience was most ambiguous. To George Bush, immigration reform means unlimited access to cheap foreign labor channeled through a guest-worker program. He seems to be the last politician in America not to recognize that this is the one solution for which there is no popular constituency.

The War in Iraq: I put this item last, in the place of honor to which the president assigned it. It was frank and coherent. It did a good job of connecting the war in Iraq with the war on terror (which are certainly connected now, even though one could argue they were not connected originally). Presentations like that were why George Bush was reelected in 2004. And then nothing happened. Or rather, quite a bit happened, but George Bush was publicly disconnected from all of it as he pursued his idiosyncratic enthusiasms about Social Security and taxes.

Regarding the Democratic responses to the president's address, we note first the English-language response by Senator James Webb of Virginia. We should all take every opportunity to view a live television appearance by Senator Webb. I cannot predict what he will do to secure his place in history, but I keep thinking of that film The Howling (1981). In any case, just as the president did, the senator led with a discussion of domestic affairs, the point of which seemed to be to instruct the American people that they were more immiserated than they actually felt. Then there was this bit:

"We in the Democratic Party hope that this administration is serious about improving education and healthcare for all Americans, and addressing such domestic priorities as restoring the vitality of New Orleans," Webb said.

The vitality of New Orleans was gone long before Katrina. Most of us have gathered by now that curing what ails the place is beyond federal intervention.

As for Iraq, Webb proposed that Bush take as a model President Eisenhower's policy toward Korea, which quickly resulted in the truce that lasts to this day. My understanding is that Eisenhower got a settlement by threatening to drop atomic bombs on Manchuria. Be careful what you wish for.

I don't follow spoken Spanish well enough to understand the Spanish-language response from Rep. Xavier Becerra; maybe I will see a transcript later. In any case, it is profoundly disturbing that different responses were issued simultaneously to different linguistic groups. That's just one step away from making different responses to different nations, which is in fact where bilingualism always leads.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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