Politics & Policy

State of the SOTU


National Review Online asked a group of experts to assess the president’s final State of the Union Address.

Dick Armey

America’s attention has turned to the economy, and President Bush described the right path to continued economic growth and prosperity: tax relief, expanded free trade, ending junk lawsuits, and ending wasteful spending in Congress.

In particular, the president did a good job making the case for permanent tax relief and for pro-market, pro-consumer health-care reform. I loved his declaration against higher taxes: “If any bill raises taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it.” But the president also missed the mark on some of the details on earmarks, the stimulus, and the housing situation.

His earmark executive order is a good idea that should go into effect immediately, not in FY 2009. And reducing earmarks by half is, well, a tepid half-measure. Earmarks are a symbol of political motivations trumping policy considerations. Unfortunately the call to end earmark and spending abuse has arrived a few SOTU’s too late. Republicans badly need to restore their brand as responsible stewards of our tax dollars, and to restore that trust they need to be better than the Democrats, and they need to do it now. Republicans in Congress should build on the president’s words by immediately adopting a unilateral moratorium on earmarks for the next twelve months.

Similarly, the proposed bipartisan stimulus package embraces misguided Keynesian myths and plays election year Santa Claus instead of fundamentally strengthening the economy. Perhaps the most troubling element of the stimulus is the move to dramatically expand the federal role in mortgage markets, increasing the liability and risk for taxpayers, renters, and responsible homeowners. Markets respond to permanently lowed tax rates and budget discipline, not to hand-outs and bailouts that will need to be borrowed and paid by future generations.

– Dick Armey is chairman of FreedomWorks.

Michael G. Franc

President Bush’s reference to the pressing need to reform our big three entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — struck me as the most revealing moment of the speech. As he reflected on the most significant unaddressed domestic challenge of his two terms, his famous frustration with all things Washington took hold. Reforming these programs, after all, requires heavy lifting and everyone with a congressional voting card is honor-bound to contribute to the effort.

Yet, as we all know, in 2005 when Bush proposed to expend his vaunted political capital on a far-reaching and market-based overhaul of the Social Security program, the liberal establishment in Washington rose up as one…..to deny that there was even a problem. Even otherwise sympathetic Republican lawmakers turned tail and refused to engage. Nothing has changed since. To this day, Sen. Clinton (to cite one example) denies the program is broke and maintains that whatever fiscal imbalance may exist in Social Security can be remedied by nothing more than some good old-fashioned economic growth.

Tellingly, Bush directed his remarks directly to the members of Congress seated in the House chamber:

Every Member in this chamber knows that spending on entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is growing faster than we can afford. And we all know the painful choices ahead if America stays on this path: massive tax increases, sudden and drastic cuts in benefits, or crippling deficits. I have laid out proposals to reform these programs. Now I ask Members of Congress to offer your proposals and come up with a bipartisan solution to save these vital programs for our children and grandchildren.

It was as if the field commander, abandoned once in the heat of battle, had returned to remind his timid colleagues that their actions have consequences and that there was time yet to fulfill their responsibility to the American people.

– Michael G. Franc is vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation.

Jeb Hensarling

Tonight, we heard the final State of the Union Address from a president who has commanded our nation through some of its most difficult days, and I applaud him for his continued leadership and unrelenting will to keep America safe from the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism. At its core, the theme of the president’s speech was a conservative one – empowering American citizens with the freedom to make decisions for themselves and their families. As we address the most pressing issues facing our nation, we must never abdicate from our responsibility to provide solutions that embody our most cherished principle – individual liberty. Though the issues which we debate will continue to change, our commitment to freedom must never waiver.

The president spoke a great deal about congressional earmarks. By now it is pretty clear that when it comes to earmarking, there aren’t just a few bad apples, the barrel is full of them. The American people have wised up to the fact that too often congressional earmarks are about using their paychecks to preserve a congressman’s paycheck I hope that Democrats will join Republicans, who last week called for a moratorium on all earmark requests. Republicans must go further. There is no greater way to lead than by example. Within the last three months, we have seen rapid growth in the number of members who have taken a personal earmark moratorium. To that end, I hope that senior Members of our Republican Conference – our appropriators, Committee Ranking Members, and especially Members of our Republican Leadership team – follow Leader Boehner’s example and pledge their own personal earmark moratorium until integrity is restored to the process.

 – Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) is chairman of the House Republican Study Committee.

John Hood

Yes, President Bush talked about taxes. He talked about earmarks. He pitched measures to restrain spending, to expand private health choice, even to extend school choice to America’s inner cities. But few will remember any of this standard GOP domestic-policy fare. The president’s last State of the Union Speech was about the war. It had to be. It’s his legacy. It’s a matter of life and death.

And it is, as Bush demonstrated, a source of potential long-term vulnerability for Democrats, contrary to what was once considered the conventional wisdom on Iraq’s political implications. “When we met last year,” the president stated bluntly to the opposition party in Congress, “many said containing the violence was impossible.” He used the opening phrase again and again, “when we met last year,” to contrast the dismal past with the promising, if still dangerous, present.

I think what Bush really felt like saying was something like this: “When we met last year, you had lost your nerve.

“I didn’t.”

But that wouldn’t be politic. Still, what the president managed to do was confront congressional leaders about their bad calls on Iraq, much as they had previously (and properly) confronted his administration about past bad calls on Iraq. It was embarrassing to see so many of America’s “leaders” take so long to rise to their feet to cheer when Bush called for the defeat of America’s enemies. Voters may have already decided to punish Bush’s party for early failures in Iraq, but I have a sneaking suspicion that in the long run those politicians who lost their nerve a year ago will earn history’s opprobrium.

John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation.

Clifford D. May

Last night’s State of the Union struck me as less the speech of a lame duck than the speech of a candidate. That’s not to say it was a great speech. Candidates’ speeches seldom are. But Bush seemed energized and, well, presidential. He did not look — as he has on some occasions — weary or beaten down.

What did this speech accomplish? Bush renewed his “compassionate conservative” credentials. He revived (at long last) his fiscal conservative bona fides. And he asserted that even as a lame duck, he remains a hawk.

A year ago, it was difficult to argue that failure in Iraq was not inevitable. (I know because I was among those making that argument.) Today, Iraq is the one battlefield in the global war where American forces are defeating our sworn enemies, al-Qaeda and militias doing the bidding of Iraq’s Islamist mullahs. Bush deserves credit for changing course — albeit belatedly — and tonight he took some of that credit (while Democrats scowled).

But in his State of the Union six years ago, Bush spoke not just of Iraq but of an “axis of evil” that also included Iran and North Korea, rogue states “seeking weapons of mass destruction” and posing a “grave and growing danger.”

Bush stated memorably at that time: “I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

Today, Iran remains a peril, and Bush did not suggest he would do anything meaningful to stop it from drawing closer over the months left to him. As for North Korea, it is still a gathering danger, one left unmentioned last evening. The world’s most dangerous regimes may yet threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons, a problem the next president will have to forcefully address — or not.

Final note: What is one to make of Bush’s apparent confidence in the imminent advent of peace between Israel and a “democratic Palestine”? Surely the chances for that are about equal to those for real Social Security reform, passage of a comprehensive immigration bill, and Harriet Myers getting a seat on the Supreme Court.

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.

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