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A Look at the State of the Union: The President Puts His Agenda On Display, Kaine Response is Impressive but May Align Too Closely With Bush’s Own Goals to Satisfy Dems in an Election Year

As a professional speechwriter, I wanted to take a few minutes to examine President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union speech and the Democrats’ response, delivered by recently elected Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

The president accomplished quite a bit in his speech last night, firmly establishing that — despite having suffered some lumps in 2005 — he continues to hold the influence in Washington that his office requires and that the legislative agenda of the Congress in 2006 would be his own. The president was very strong on foreign policy issues. He made clear that there would be no politically motivated changes to the plan for winning the peace in Iraq, restated the commitment of the United States and its allies to preventing terrorists and rogue nations from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and challenged Hamas to disarm in order to build a peaceful co-existence with Israeli neighbors. Reaffirming his administration’s commitment to the spread of freedom and democracy, the president also recognized democratic reforms peacefully underway in some corners of the Middle East and challenged the people of Iran to throw off the oppressive bonds of a brutal theocracy.

The president addressed the controversy over his administration’s wiretapping of international calls made to or received from suspected terrorists or their intermediaries. He reasserted the legal authority of his administration to conduct this surveillance without seeking warrants and hammered home that the debate over this issue is between those for whom the security of the nation is the top-most priority and those who have grown complacent in the War on Terror.

In a fitting transition from foreign policy to our domestic viability, the president sketched out a plan to dramatically reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil and announced an initiative to improve math and science education for our children in order to preserve our tradition of innovation and world leadership in the development of new technologies.

The president did a fair job detailing the growth of the economy and our prosperity relative to the rest of the world, tying that prosperity directly to the tax cuts implemented during his first term and calling on the Congress to make those tax cuts permanent. He also asked the legislature to reauthorize the Patriot Act, which drew applause from a surprising number of Democrats.

By-and-large, the president’s speech sought to avoid inciting rancor — particularly in the light of his victory on the Alito confirmation just hours before. He did, however, land a subtle but significant rhetorical blow against Democrats in the prelude to his call for a bipartisan commission to study the effect of retiring baby boomers on our major entitlement programs.

“Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security,” he said to thunderous applause by the Democrats in the chamber. “Yet the rising cost of entitlements is a problem that is not going away.” And again they cheered. The president delivered both of these lines as if they were any other applause lines in his speech, and the Democrats bit, essentially cheering their ability to stonewall any change, including possible improvements, to the system. And then they cheered his point that the problem is getting worse. It seemed a strange way to demonstrate their values and played into the hands of critiques who call the Democrats obstructionists. The president didn’t acknowledge their applause but immediately hit them with the following, a very civil call for bipartisan cooperation to tackle this challenge:

“So tonight, I ask you to join me in creating a commission to examine the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This commission should include members of Congress of both parties, and offer bipartisan solutions. We need to put aside partisan politics and work together and get this problem solved.”

The exchange was well calculated and the lines delivered exactly as they had to be to show the president reaching across the aisle while coaxing the Democrats into painting themselves as partisan extremists.

In the end, the president effectively shared with Americans his priorities for 2006 and made a good show of the call for bipartisan support. This was, perhaps, the president’s best delivery of a State of the Union since he took office. He was confident, articulate, and exhibited the vision Americans look for in their leader — a vision the Democrats even find themselves hard-pressed to criticize despite their intense desire to rescue power from the administration and the Republican majority.

Which brings me to the Democrats’ response by Governor Tim Kaine. This was the best-conceived opposition response to a State of the Union that I can memory. Kaine made a compelling case for a change of attitude among our public servants, Republican and Democrat alike. He took the administration to task for failures — real, in the case of hurricane Katrina and debatable, in the cases of our economic outlook and the War on Terror. Still, his tone was civil — perhaps a product of his position as a Washington outsider — and he struck a balance between his criticism of the administration and an optimism grounded in his faith.

Kaine’s delivery was a bit forced at times and stiff at others, which strangely reminded me of Al Gore impersonating Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. The governor likely could have used a couple more rehearsals before the cameras began to roll. But this was his first national address and an important one as the party sought to reclaim some middle ground after the misguided rhetoric and antics of Democratic leaders over the Alito Supreme Court nomination. So, he can be forgiven if his nerves interfered with his delivery.

In some ways, the governor’s speech was reminiscent of then-nominee Bush’s acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention — a speech many consider to be the finest of Bush’s political career or second, perhaps, to his address to Congress after the September 11 attacks. Kaine’s repetition of the phrase “There is a better way” was an effective rhetorical device, and his message about service likely struck a chord with mainstream Americans. It certainly resonated with me when he spoke of “measuring what we do in terms of real results for real people,” though I would dispute significant portions of his argument.

The problem with Governor Kaine’s speech last night, however, was that for all of his talk about a better way, he failed to put forth a better vision for the nation. He essentially gave the president high marks on the goals he has set but took issue with the way the administration seeks to achieve those goals. That may accurately reflect the alignment of mainstream America’s values with the president’s and squares well with my thoughts on why Bush was re-elected in 2004, but it doesn’t present nearly the extent of opposition that Democratic leaders were counting on to kick off the election year. The Democratic party is still lacking a real alternative vision to win over voters, and they are running out of time to develop one if they want to gain significant (or any) ground in the mid-term elections this fall.

Kaine did accomplish two things that we should acknowledge right now. First, he did restore some civility to the left side of the recent political debate. That is good for the country, and it is good for his party. But, perhaps more importantly, Kaine introduced himself to the nation and staked a claim on some degree of prominence within the Democratic Party. If he manages a successful term as governor of Virginia, he could be a formidable player in the nation’s politics for some time to come.

Despite the civil tone of both speeches, it would have been impossible to ignore the political gamesmanship in each. We’ll see — as the president begins to stump for his agenda later today in Nashville and in the coming weeks, and as the new legislative session begins — whether that tone will be able to stave off an intensifying of political division as we move nearer and nearer to the next elections.

Shawn Bannon is a professional speechwriter and editorialist. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, he has written for and served as a communications consultant to a number of civic, business and community leaders. He can be reached by e-mailing Shawn.Bannon@not-quite-right.com.

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Posted by on February 1, 2006.

Tags: State of the Union

Categories: Not Quite Right

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