February 1, 2006
Once again, President Bush performed above the level of most people's expectations in his address to the nation last night, and he set the right tone of optimism leavened with sober realism. (As I noted yesterday, that is part of the recently-recalibrated White House communications strategy, reaching out to a skeptical public.) This tone stood in contrast to last year, when Bush was fresh from reelection: "On a roll, not lookin' back."
The President's fundamental message was clear and very apt: The United States must continue to lead in pursuit of freedom around the world, and resist the temptation of retreating into the "false comfort of isolationism." (For the complete text, see whitehouse.gov.)
The seething resentment felt by the minority party exploded in a chorus of sarcastic cheering when Bush recalled the failure of his proposed Social Security reform last year. I can hardly imagine how he must have felt, after having spent so much of his "political capital" on an earnest, if somewhat misguided, reform initiative. "No good deed goes unpunished." Let us hope that at least some of them were sincere [in applauding] when he went on to admonish the entire chamber that the looming crisis of entitlements must be addressed, one way or the other. I was glad he mixed conciliatorty gestures with an emphatic rejection of the inappropriate dissent by the antiwar movement:
Yet, there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy.
With regard to the core element of his foreign policy, the promotion of democracy, he handled the awkward question of frustrations in a delicate way. He called on the repressive Egyptian government to "open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism." Easier said than done. Hardly anyone seriously believes that his pro forma call on Hamas to choose peace will be heeded, but he had to say it.
I was prepared to be disappointed that Bush remains committed to "compassionate conservatism," which basically panders to (liberal) conventional wisdom on certain issues, in an expedient search for an expanded voter base. Two of the biggest missed opportunities were energy and immigration:
America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.
That is a sad recitation of one of the lamest cliches in the American political lexicon, evading the real issue. The idea that public investment in new technologies will somehow solve the problem with no inconvenience to our coddled masses is the perfect example of how democratic societies are prone to fatuous delusions. New technologies certainly may lead to greater energy efficiency, but the only consistent, rational way to encourage that is to allow energy prices to rise to their natural market level. In a true market society, there would be a built-in profit incentive for such technologies to develop on their own. The real reason that alternative energy sources are not being adequately developed is that energy in this country is artificially cheap! Leftists often cry out "No blood for oil!" To that, I would respond, "No implicit subsidy for oil!" To the extent that the price of energy is held down by virtue of the stabilizing influence of U.S. armed forces in the Middle East, the cost of such intervention should be explicitly borne by energy consumers, via a tax on gasoline. If a strongly "conservative" president cannot bring himself to come right out and say that energy is a scarce commodity whose price reflects that scarcity, then who ever will? .
We hear claims that immigrants are somehow bad for the economy -- even though this economy could not function without them. (Applause.) All these are forms of economic retreat, and they lead in the same direction -- toward a stagnant and second-rate economy.
I admire Bush for sticking to his guns on this issue, but I am very disappointed that he does not want to face up to the consequences of turning a blind eye to the massive cheating upon which a large portion of our economy is based. Too many Republicans have the cynical attitude that it is OK for businesses to hire illegal aliens so as to circumvent the labor laws, even though that practice reduces opportunities for American workers. Economic integration of North America will proceed in an awkward, uneven fashion, but there is a real danger that the impetus of economic liberalization will dissipate unless political leaders on both sides of the border maintain a courageous devotion to the ultimate principles and goals of NAFTA. To live up to the ideals of peace and prosperity, Bush needs to stoutly resist calls for a Berlin wall along our border, while allocating increased funds for border patrols and resuming candid dialogue with Mexico over free trade. The point is to increase opportunities for Mexicans and Central Americans within their own countries so they don't have to come here for a job!
As I keep insisting, if Bush were really intent on pursuing a radical restructuring of the American society and economy along free market lines, as many people believe he is doing, he would effectively link the immigration issue to entitlements reform, economic policy, and national security. What a wonderful world it would be! Alas...
For the Democrats' response, our own governor of the Old Dominion, Tim Kaine, stepped up to the plate. Still "wet behind the ears," in office for less than two weeks, he has not yet gained full control over the facial muscles that constantly propel his left eyebrow upward. His real function was to draw attention to the political success of his mentor and predecessor, Mark Warner, who is actively exploring running for president in 2008. That should be a good sign for the sane moderates within the Democrat Party, but Kaine felt obliged to pander to the leftist base by challenging the President's veracity on justifying the war in Iraq. Saying "America can do better" came across as a lame, hackneyed slogan.
A certain "unmentionable wacko" was arrested for disorderly conduct in the Capitol Building. She was wearing a concealed protest shirt, and recently accused the President of "waging a war of terrorism against the world."