January 21, 2004

Random Thoughts on the Union

The President has spoken, the Democrats responded and the pundits are off and running. Thought I'd put down a few thoughts while they're in my head, and hopefully generate some comments.

First, "if [PATRIOT Act techniques] are good for embezzlers and drug offenders, they even more important for terrorist cases." Um, how about they're not okay for embezzlers and drug offenders. If you're going to defend an encroachment on civil liberties by reference to the war on drugs, you're not going to score too many points. But that's too easy — let's compromise, how about we keep the powers for terrorists but take it away for drugs and white collar crimes. And we throw the book at anyone, including Ashcroft, who uses the powers to harass bong sellers and pornographers.

Second, though I'm totally opposed to a Federal Marriage Amendment, I think the President approached it from the exact right direction politically. Framing it as a choice between amending the Constitution the way the Framers intended vs. letting activist judges amend it – that's probably a winner politically. Nevermind that he's abandoning the states' rights stance that's supposed to be a Republican mainstay. Nevermind that he's on the wrong side of this one in the long term (once all the old people who are so opposed to gay marriage die). At least he put some window dressing of respect and dignity for all individuals....

Third, he was pretty strong on Iraq, and I agree with Howard Fineman and Peggy Noonan on Hardball — he was begging for the Democrats to come after him on the war and foreign policy. Which leads me to....

Fourth, how horrible was the Democratic response? Nancy Pelosi looked like a deer caught in headlights, and she said nothing, nothing on foreign policy that wasn't a repeat of the same platitudinous clichés. She did not inspire confidence at all. Daschle was better, sticking to their stronger domestic issues — but I can't believe he took time to talk about country of origin labelling on food products! This is the State of the Union?

Anyway, as a political speech it was okay, a good start to a campaign. As a SOTU, it disappointed. I hate the fact that rhetoric is dead. Killed by television? Certainly a steep downward slope from Kennedy. Is it too much to ask that we use a thesaurus and find another word for "thug", "killer", and "assassin". The colloquialisms are the real killers. I want the President, the Democratic responders, a candidate, anyone, to say something uplifting, something grand. Show me a vision, an idea, a direction, a dream.... anything.

Another thing from Hardball – what about that AIDS money for Africa. Wish he'd brought it up again. If, as Bill Frist claims, the Democrats are to blame for blocking the appropriations, then stuff it in their face by renewing the commitment. But don't just let one of the few uplifting moments from the previous years slide off the agenda while no one was looking.

That's about it. What did you think?

Update: one more thing that I thought was particularly strong and is a large part of my support for the war in Iraq: "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible -- and no one can now doubt the word of America." The credible threat argument is the biggest weakness of the multilateralists. But I won't change any minds here....

Second update: yes, I shouldn't complain about Daschle's food labelling next to Bush's steroid testing of all things. No issue too small I guess.

Posted by richard at January 21, 2004 12:03 AM

It was a terrible SOTU address by almost any measure except the democratic response. I found it less political than I thought it would be and less "this is what we are trying to do but the democrats won't let us" than I hoped. I loved the "we will never ask for permission" part, the listing of the countries helping the coallition, and the long overdue dig at Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, he can't deliver the best lines without stumbling. Physically, the disappointment on his face from not being able to run against Dean was very distracting.

Posted by: dick at January 21, 2004 11:31 AM

I actually thought Bush's speech to Congress post-9/11 was pretty inspiring. I still remember his promise that al Qaeda-style fundamentalism will be ground down, like fascism and totalitarian socialism, into "history's unmarked grave of historic lies."

I have to confess that I didn't watch last night's speech: I'm still pissed that 24 got pushed back to next week. I took the opportunity to pass a quiet non-television-oriented evening with the Wife.

But from the blurbs: I wish he'd get off his "faith-based programs" kick. There he was, last week, at MLK's grave, talking about faith-based programs -- I suppose the fact that King was a "Reverend" gave him an in to talk about that. But I guess civil rights doesn't leap to mind as the Topic to Discuss at MLK's grave.

Putting aside how I feel about the issue, I just worry that this Marriage Amendment, like Prohibition, seems to be a petty deployment of the constitutional amendment process. Do we want to get in the business of building amendment movements every time the Supreme Court issues a countermajoritarian ruling? The standard is quite high for amendment, I know -- the idea being that the Supreme Court can't get totally out of hand (e.g., broadly reading Article III to rule that they are Kings of Everything), but it seems like constitutional amendments have a certain weight and grandeur to them, and I don't know if we should cheapen that for political gestures. Then again, maybe the Civil War Amendments were political cheapshots leveld at a conquered Southl, and their grandeur has only accumulated over time. I don't have the answer for that, except that if it was judicial amendment that added that grandeur, then it's a good thing.

As for whether what federal judges rule is interpretation or de facto amendment, that argument could go on for days. Two big friction points are (1) is Framer intent the appropriate basis for constitutional interpretation, and (2) how do we know (or how would we reconstruct) what the Framers thought on the issue? It seems that the conservatives have a handy default answer to (2), which is that the Constitution can afford no protections to conduct beyond what was regarded as socially acceptable behavior in 1789. That doesn't leave much room for a progressive society, unless you can muster a political majority to support each instance of progress.

The question is, as you say, do we have to wait for all the old people to die before these rights ripen?

My solution would be to organize a movement to amend the Constitution to add express language embodying the privacy rights we've devised from due process. If the Framers didn't put this in, it was a mistake. There has to be a limit on what the government can do to the individual. Leaving abortion out in Controversy-land, there has to be a basis for protecting the rights of couples to use contraceptives. There has to be a provision that says the government can't force you to paint your house blue and eat fish on Friday. I agree that it is an interpretive stretch, as Scalia maintains, to fold this out of the "Due Process Clause," which refers to process and not rights.

So let's get language in there that does the job.

Posted by: Brad A. at January 21, 2004 11:32 AM

Dick Jr. (and III),

I found this article in slate to be an interesting analysis of the "Evasions, Half-Truths, and the State of the Union." Basically, I agree with its premise that Bush made a really weak attempt to paint our current situation in a positive light to make the case that we should stay the course.

In particular, though, they picked apart the sentence about a "permission slip." Bush essentially argued against a strawman, which may draw cheers from supporters is intellectually dishonest. Here's the analysis from the slate article:

"There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people."

This is a textbook definition of a red herring. Even the U.N. Charter explicitly allows the right to unilateral self-defense. The question, of course, is whether Saddam Hussein constituted a threat to the security of the United States. Last year's address spent much time contending that he did, citing the tons of anthrax, warehouse loads of bioweapons, and secret laboratories full of nuclear gear that Saddam had at his disposal—and the links between Iraq and al-Qaida that could bring these dangers to our shores. This year, the speechwriters might have contemplated reminding the American people of the case. But, to their credit and their caution, they decided not to give it a single word's credence."

Because of his highly partisan version of reality or unfair representation of his opponents views, I found the speech ranging from boring to aggreviating.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at January 23, 2004 01:59 PM

A few things. I know I'm late and so no one will probably ever readthis, but what the hell.

I love the listing of the coalition "partners" that joined in the effort against Iraq. A bunch of tiny countries that signed on for fear of American reprisals. This is bully diplomacy at its worst.

And yes, I do believe that American "threats" are now more credible. No country can now doubt that we have the will to go to war. But what about the rest of American credibilty? Who will believe us next time when we say, for example, that Syria has weapons of mass destruction and poses a threat to the region and we need to take action? What about the credibility of America's moral leadership? George Bush has helped ruin America's reputation in the rest of the world. Who will follow our leadership now? I know the unilateralists don't care what the rest of the wrold thinks, but WE are stuck with this mess in Iraq, WE are footing the bill, WE are incurring the wrath of all the lunatics, WE are sustaining all the casualties - so I think it DOES make a difference what the rest of the world thinks.

The only credible things we have left are our threats . . .

Posted by: Mike F. at January 30, 2004 08:08 PM