Dr. Dubya and Mr. Bush

The strange case of the State of the Union

It takes some doing to make George W. Bush look like a powerful speaker, but as in recent years, the stilted, tone-deaf Democratic response to the State of the Union address last night, somehow transformed the Billy Budd of American political rhetoric into a relative Cicero. Even their lone clever turn of phrase—framing the deficit as a "birth tax," just as Republicans managed to rebrand the estate tax as a "death tax"—was strangled in the crib by the Mr. Rogers-meets-Botoxic Avenger delivery.

Yet one line did capture something right about Bush's speech: the claim that it sounded "a little like that movie Groundhog Day: the same-old ideology that we've heard before, over and over again." Since the response is typically prepared well in advance of the speech, the insight was probably accidental. When Harper's editor and psychic Lewis Lapham similarly preported that the Republican National Convention had been (would be?) a forum for "the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal—government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden's prayer," he not only paraded dubious journalistic judgment but revealed he was reading from a playbook long discarded.

Still, those of us who recall, somewhat bitterly, watching Bush's speech at the Republican Convention in 2000 and thinking he might do some net good may have felt a touch of deja vu last night. The disconnect between Governor Bush's rhetoric then and President Bush's actions since —as memorably captured on the foreign policy front by The Daily Show's Bush vs. Bush debate—is ample reason to remain wary. And after a few years of speeches marked by grand Wilsonian visions and encomia for the appalling PATRIOT act, the soft bigotry of low expectations may have kicked in. But even with all those caveats, there was an unusual amount for a libertarian to like in this Bush speech.

There was, of course, the return to center stage of Social Security reform. Though some libertarians are beginning to have reservations about the form a privatization plan would ultimately take, it's worth bearing in mind that the easiest thing to do politically would be to simply leave this hot potato for future administrations to handle—probably after it's thoroughly mashed. And bucking his own party's xenophobic wing to stand behind immigration liberalization evidences similar political courage. The same single-minded resolve that liberated an ill-conceived Iraq war from the realm of neocon fantasy may do some actual good here.

As programs that fall outside the proper scope of federal authority go, an anti-gang initiative is relatively inoffensive, and it was both surprising and heartening to see Bush express concern for the rights of the accused, stressing the importance of using DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction. Lest civil libertarians celebrate too quickly, though, it's not clear whether this was a proposal for further steps or merely a reference to the progress that, to its credit, Congress has already recently made.

There was some tough talk directed at some of our more appalling allies in the Middle East, which insofar as it signifies a commitment to exert further diplomatic pressure is all to the good. There was at least a nod to the goal of withdrawing in Iraq, albeit one belied by the proposed construction of a $1.5 billion dollar embassy complex there, on a scale which suggests a more robust expected involvement than the hosting of diplomatic soirées. On the whole, though, Bush seemed more eager to douse himself in shimmering purple paint than to seek out new tar babies to wallop.

Bush's reiteration of his commitment to halving the deficit by 2009 was, as it always has been, disingenuous insofar as the same projections which support his claim to be on track to do this would show those deficits returning with a vengance should Bush succeed in eliminating the sunset clause in his tax cuts. But if there are teeth behind Bush's pledge to grow discretionary spending slower than inflation—and we can avoid vast new military expenditures—there may be some reason for hope even on that front.

Finally, there was the predictable red meat thrown to social conservatives. (Though since, as Bush reminded us, one of the core causes of Social Security's long term fiscal imbalance is that "people are living longer and therefore drawing benefits longer," perhaps his hostility to stem-cell research should be counted as an innovative part of his retirement reform package.) It's hard to feel anything but revulsion when Bush invokes "the values of a free society" to inveigh against gay marriage. But it's also hard to believe that he was more sincere here than when he candidly hinted a few weeks ago that the Federal Marriage Amendment will be the new mission to Mars. Anyway, between the coquettish wink at Stephen Breyer and planting a big wet one on Joe Lieberman after the speech, how serious can he be about this? The consolation for the once-bitten, in other words, is that the gap between the principled president behind the podium, Dr. Dubya, and the pragmatic Mr. Bush, may be as great for his abhorrent proposals as for the salutary ones.

While more humdrum than its predecessors as a piece of rhetoric, the 2005 State of the Union address was one that, on the whole, should leave libertarians, maybe not enthused, but less apprehensive than the average. Before we break out the champagne, though, let's recall the president's own advice: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me..." well, cue the Who song.

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