Politics & Policy

Speech Talk

Assessing the State of the Union.

On Tuesday, President George W. Bush delivered his next to last State of the Union address. National Review Online asked a group of experts to react. Here’s how they responded.

Roger Bate

The president says that “American foreign policy is more than a matter of war and diplomacy.” He is partly right. His administration has done more to support development ‘in nations where democracy is on the rise and corruption is in retreat’ through the Millennium Challenge Account, and improve health through direct interventions to fight HIV and malaria, than any previous President or other World leader.

Half those treated (800,000) for HIV around the world are paid for by U.S. taxpayers, and his initiative on malaria is blazing a trail for better policy — notably the adoption of DDT spraying. His call for Congressional support for these programs (about $5bn per year) is warranted.

However, his administration’s diplomacy often undermines this development work. I am not qualified to judge whether U.S. support for Ethiopia’s recent invasion of Somalia was warranted. But I know that Ethiopia’s president is a thug, and expanding support (even for malaria and HIV control as is planned) to this Marxist regime sends an unfortunate mixed message to other countries of Africa.

For 40 years, U.S. involvement in Africa is replete with failure; examples of where yesterday’s realpolitik is today’s idiocy. His administration must endeavor to only support those countries which will use that support wisely, rather than temporarily useful allies, or more billions of dollars and millions of lives will be wasted.

Roger Bate is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.

Peter Brookes

Normally, the State of the Union address is to the American people. This year, on the grave issue of Iraq, the president spoke directly to Congress on two important points:

1. “You did not vote for failure [in Iraq].”

2. “We need to find our resolve and turn events toward victory.”

Hopefully, these words will resonate with the Senate and House of Representatives when they take up their deliberations on the way forward in Iraq in the days ahead.

Lastly, the words of Winston Churchill seem particularly salient: “However absorbed a commander may be in the elaboration of his own thoughts, it is necessary sometimes to take the enemy into consideration.”

It is clear the president has fully taken our enemies in Iraq and the region — from al Qaeda to the Sunni insurgents to the proxy war being waged by Iran through Shia militias — into consideration.

As the Congress debates and proposes its own plan for Iraq, they must do so as well.

– Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense.

Michael Cannon

It would be difficult to overstate how dramatically the president’s proposal would reduce government influence in the health care sector. The perverse tax incentives to over-consume health insurance and medical care? Gone. Tax penalties for those without employer-based coverage? Gone. Over 200 million consumers focused on cost-effectiveness. Competition forcing insurers and providers to be efficient and responsive.

It could increase the tax burden of 20 percent of workers, who may have to pay taxes on a small portion of their health benefits. Avoiding that fact would be a mistake.

However, the proposal would reduce other taxes on those same workers. It would reduce the cost growth fueled by the tax code; that is a tax cut. Removing the tax penalty on non-employer coverage is another tax cut. Those workers could also shift that portion of their health benefits to other tax-free benefits (which would eliminate any tax increase) or shift it to wages where, though they would pay taxes on those wages, their take-home pay would increase.

Note also what this proposal is not: a mandate, or a Massachusetts-style exercise in government planning. The president just made that stuff look like HillaryCare.

– Michael F. Cannon is director of health-policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Chester E. Finn Jr.

The president’s No-Child-Left-Behind (NCLB) proposals are numerous, sensible — and unlikely to get far in Congress. Though not the thoroughgoing overhaul that many (including me) favor, within the current NCLB framework these mid-course corrections would ease some of the statute’s worst sticking points. Five deserve special note:

* More options for kids stuck in failing schools, including private-school choice (funded at about $4,000 per kid, enough to pay many tuitions) and the option of attending public schools in other districts.

* New authority for districts to change their own failing schools, including setting aside collective-bargaining constraints on teacher transfers and state-level “caps” on charter schools. (Another provision modernizes Washington’s charter-school support program in useful ways.)

* Overdue flexibility for states to shift their federal dollars from one “categorical” program to another.

* The opportunity for every state to convert its achievement-tracking system to what educators call a “growth model,” i.e. one that measures student gains and the “value added” by their school, not just absolute performance in relation to fixed standards.

* The inclusion of science (with reading and math) achievement in the calculation of a school’s “adequate yearly progress.

The last pair could garner bipartisan support. The first trio will be fought by Democrats and their union allies.

But the White House deserves two cheers for trying. I’ll reserve the third for policymakers who offer instead to rethink NCLB from the ground up with national standards and tests offset by far less micromanagement from Washington.  

  — Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

John Fonte

Tuesday night President Bush declared that we must have an “immigration system worthy of America.” He decried “laws and borders” that are “routinely violated.” For the first time in a major address he stressed the importance of assimilating immigrants stating: ”We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals.”

If this speech had been delivered in January 2002, January 2005, or even last January, it might have been convincing. But after last year’s immigration debate we now know what ”comprehensive reform” means. The White House backed up the speech with promises of working with local law enforcement, using the National Guard, doubling the border patrol, and work site enforcement. Unfortunately, in 2006 the Administration supported the Martinez-Hagel bill that did none of the above. Instead the Senate bill according to John Ashcroft’s former chief enforcement official was “disastrous,” actually blocking cooperation between the feds and locals.

On assimilation, the White House is starting to get the right idea. At the Immigration Service James Ziglar and Stuart Anderson, who had no interest in assimilation, fortunately, are gone and have been replaced by two outstanding appointees Emilio Gonzalez and Alfonso Aguilar, who have a great interest in restoring our traditional assimilation ethic. However, on immigration overall, it is too little, too late for any substantive good.

– John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Thankfully, President Bush resisted the impulse to take a Clintonesque approach to the State of the Union address, to toss out dozens of different policy proposals and appeals to special interests — in favor of a shorter address grouped around several major themes. And it does appear that the White House speechwriters took to heart the advice that the Heritage Foundation’s Kim Holmes gave the president in the current issue of The National Interest, to focus on sketching out his legacy rather than defending past decisions. The president no longer has to worry about reelection or helping his party win Congressional races. We are at a critical point in U.S. foreign policy — and tonight was a time for even greater candor with the American people.

So let me first offer two criticisms.

It’s well and good to want to reduce gasoline usage by 20 percent by 2017 and to, over time, increase the strategic petroleum reserve. The problem is that Iran is set to cross the nuclear finish line long before these proposals will have significant impacts on our dependence on foreign oil or on bringing down world energy prices which have not only supplied Tehran with so much revenue but also Iran’s clout. Well and good to declare that Iran under its current management will never acquire nuclear weapons — but without asking the American people to be ready for the possibility of sacrifice at the pumps this year (“My fellow Americans, two extra dollars per gallon is a reasonable price to pay to ensure a dangerous regime does not acquire the ultimate weapon”) not only Tehran but governments around the world assume that our government is not prepared to confront Iran.

The president also does the American people no service by sugarcoating unpleasant facts. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia and Sunni extremists in Iraq and the Palestinian territories are not simply pawns in the hands of foreign powers like Iran and Syria — they have also proven themselves capable of using the democratic process to win electoral mandates. Some of the death squads roaming Baghdad are part and parcel of the current government. Many of our potential allies in the region are what Amitai Etzioni has termed “illiberal moderates” — people who don’t support terror or violence but also don’t share our vision of how society should be organized. Many of the governments most friendly to our agenda for the region — whether it be support for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians or extending more rights to women — enjoy a certain degree of isolation from popular pressures that otherwise might cause them to be much less supportive of Washington.

Simply put, there are no cost-free solutions. Whether one opts for a transformational approach to the Middle East or advocates a containment strategy, there are risks inherent in both — and no guarantees for success.

But the president deserves a great deal of credit for laying before the Congress and the nation a series of foreign-policy priorities — combating terrorism, engaging in de-proliferation, stabilizing the Middle East — and mentioning that America’s partners in these efforts are not only the established democracies of the West and East Asia but also less than democratic partners such as China and Saudi Arabia. There is going to be a great temptation with this new Congress to find plenty of things wrong with many of the governments we are going to have to work with — and President Bush made clear that we will continue “to speak out for the cause of freedom.” But he is reminding the Congress that, in the words of Richard Haass, “the principal business of American foreign policy must be the foreign policy, not the domestic policy, of others.”

It may still be in our power to “shape the outcome of this battle” — but we don’t have either a blank check or unlimited time. I hope that the president’s special advisory council becomes a real forum for shaping and fine-tuning a foreign policy strategy that can endure beyond the 2008 election.

– Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest and blogs at The Washington Realist.

Joseph Loconte

Although the Bush presidency will be judged finally by the outcome of the Iraq war, there’s another aspect to his foreign policy that makes up the measure of the man as statesman: his aggressive campaign for humanitarian issues.

Does anyone really believe that the Republican party, absent Bush, would have launched the most ambitious international health initiative in history? His $15 billion program has delivered anti-retroviral drugs to 822,000 people living with AIDS, mostly women and children in Africa. No fewer than 15 nations, home to half of the world’s 39 million people who are HIV-positive, now have a fighting chance to develop the health infrastructures essential to fighting this scourge.

Cynics in Europe and the United States focus on the Katrina fiasco, but they forget about America’s heroic humanitarian work following the tsunami in Indonesia and the devastating earthquake in Pakistan. Likewise, no world leader has done more to confront international complacency over the sexual trafficking of women and children — modern slavery — or to quietly prod governments to ease their policies of political and religious repression.

In short, Bush has done much to challenge — and transform — his party’s commitment to human rights and humanitarian assistance. And the nation, Bush suggested, is better for it: “American foreign policy is more than a matter of war and diplomacy.”

It may require the distance of time, but those words may well come to define the Bush legacy as surely as any outcome in Iraq.

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and host of a London-based television/internet program called Britain and America.

Clifford D. May

You have to admit: Bush laid out an ambitious agenda for a second-half-of-the-second-term president with abysmal poll numbers facing a Democratic congress that despises him.

His agenda includes turning around the war in Iraq (tough but possible), strengthening the military for the long conflict ahead (absolutely necessary), beginning to work toward a measure of energy security (not to be confused with “energy independence”), and attempting to open negotiations with the Democrats on a host of other issues.

The White House is betting that some Democrats will come along on each of these issues — not out of respect for Bush; not even out of respect for his office, but for self-interest: While in the minority Democrats could be satisfied merely to oppose. Now that they are in the majority, some Democrats may want to show they can do more than carp and criticize from the sidelines. A few may want to demonstrate that they can exercise the power they have been given to actually get something achieved.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.


Véronique de Rugy 

The president talked about balancing the budget without raising taxes, but was silent on avoiding the automatic tax increase that will occur when his tax cuts expire at the end of 2010. He mentioned his intention to impose fiscal discipline in Washington without mentioning any specific spending cuts, or even any reductions in planned increases. He was correctly critical of the culture of earmarks that cost American taxpayers up to $18 billion a year. Yet, earmark reform is akin to putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Total outlays in 2006 rose by 7.4 percent ($182 billion) and, measured as a share of the economy, reached their highest level since 1995—20.3 percent of GDP. Under President Bush’s watch, total outlays increased from $1.8 trillion in FY2001 to $2.7 trillion in FY2007.Bush acted as if the reduction in the budget deficit was good news, but it only happened because American taxpayers sent more money to Washington and not because spending went down or was curtailed. If America continues on this path, we can eventually be like Sweden – a slow-growth welfare state with a balanced budget. To be sure, recent increases in tax revenue show that the supply-side 2003 tax cuts were successful, but no amount of Laffer Curve revenue feedback is sufficient to alleviate the looming fiscal crisis, particularly with the baby-boomers about to retire.The president did put forth a good proposal to reform the tax treatment of health insurance. If implemented, it would represent a modest step in the right direction and compensate slightly for the giant step he took in the wrong direction with the expansion of Medicare.  The speech was notable for what wasn’t said. In apparent surrender to the Democrats, the president didn’t mention making his tax cuts permanent. Also absent from the speech was his commitment to Social Security reform. Not that what he said was very impressive. The president showed utter disdain for the free market with his energy proposal. The scheme is based on the idea that the free market doesn’t work, and he renewed his endorsement of massive intrusions into energy markets in clean energy research and development; and the development of ethanol and of fuel made from the waste of plant crops. But if these technologies had real promise, the private sector would make the investments. There is no reason for taxpayers to subsidize biofuels that are not cost-effective. Many studies have shown that they cost more than the current alternative.

Yet as bad as some of the president’s proposals were, they didn’t compare to the absurd response of Senator Jim Webb (D—VA). On the economy, he described a growing divide between rich and poor during the Bush presidency. “In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table,” he said. At a time, where inflation and unemployment are really low, while the data shows that by most standards the middle class is getting richer—whether they feel it or not—the senator shows he doesn’t care about the facts, or the truth, but he would rather propagate lies about the economy.

— Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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