State of Whose Union?
"No one can now doubt the word of America."
That's what George W. Bush told the United States and the world public in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. He was referring to the war in Iraq, which he defended vigorously in the speech. But this remark made it seem he was oblivious to the fact that many people around the globe believe that the war in Iraq demonstrated that Bush's word is worth nothing. Yes, he did make good on his threat to use military force in Iraq. But he misled America and the world regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Bush chose not to directly address the issue of MIA WMDs in the speech. Instead, he offered a weak argument, noting that David Kay, the chief weapons hunter, "identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
Programs are not weapons. And Kay's report contradicted key assertions Bush and his aides issued before the war. Bush and Company had claimed Hussein had revived a nuclear weapons program. Kay said, "to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material." Bush and his crew had maintained they possessed undeniable evidence Hussein had chemical weapons. Kay reported, "Our efforts to collect and exploit intelligence on Iraq's chemical weapons program have thus far yielded little reliable information on post-1991 CW stocks and CW agent production." In his State of the Union address, Bush said, "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day." But it remains unclear how advanced those weapons programs were. And, more importantly, Bush had not argued prior to the war that Iraq had to be invaded and occupied to thwart Hussein's programs. Weapons that could be slipped to al Qaeda were the raison de guerre. Has he forgotten?
By now, it should be clear: Bush made the word of America dubious. And in this State of the Union speech, Bush continued his slippery ways, as he passionately hailed the pillars of his presidency: his war in Iraq and his tax cuts. Explaining why the war on terrorism must continue, he noted, "The killing has continued in Bali, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Mombassa, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Baghdad. The terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilized world." With such rhetoric, Bush aimed to tie the war in Iraq to the war against terrorism. Yet the link between the two is harder to prove now than ever. The most current evidence suggests that Hussein had no WMDs and maintained no working relationship with al Qaeda. He was a brutal, murderous thug. He was not part of the terrorist challenge the United States faces in the post-9/11 period. But Bush conflates the conflict in Iraq with terrorist attacks elsewhere for the obvious effect.
Bush was confident in his speech. He yielded no ground. "American will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people," he proclaimed -- further suggesting that the war in Iraq was somehow necessary for the immediate protection of the United States. He celebrated the controversial Patriot Act and called on Congress to renew it before it expires next year. "The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule," he effectively quipped.
His administration, he assured Americans, is doing everything to secure the homeland. "Inside the United States, where the war began, we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us," he said. But he declined to respond to the criticism that his administration has moved rather slowly to enhance security at chemical plants and ports. He also neglected to mention that a report put out by a Council on Foreign Relations task force (headed by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman) noted that the needs of emergency responders are being underfunded by almost $100 billion over the next five years.
Of course, in Bush-land the American economy is doing just swell. Bush cited the obvious stats, concentrating on the recent boost in economic growth. But he also reported, "jobs are on the rise." Does he not read the newspapers? (Oh, I forgot: he has told interviewers that he does not bother with the daily papers.) In December, Bush's "strong" economy created 1000 jobs. That's less than the number of people who attend the average Bush fundraiser. And on Planet Bush, there are no problems with his No Child Left Behind Act -- which has been blasted by educators across the country for shackling school systems with arbitrary tests and standards that can cause more harm than good and for shortchanging schools on funds.
Bush proposed more tax cuts and said there was no reason to fret about budget deficits. He urged Congress to extend the various tax cuts it passed last year. "Unless you act," he said, "Americans face a tax increase. What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away. For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent." This was a disingenuous statement. There is nothing wrong with Congress providing temporary tax breaks. In fact, Republicans put expiration dates on the tax cuts in order to keep the size of the package down and within budgetary limits. As for job growth, there is no proof yet (it may come; it may not) that the recent tax cuts will stir significant job growth.
Bush claimed that the budget he will soon send to Congress will "cut the deficit in half over the next five years." Here was the latest installment in a long run of fuzzy math. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bush's projections "show a large decline in the deficit by 2009 only because the [Office of Management and Budget] figures will omit a series of very likely or inevitable costs in taxes, defense spending, and other areas." The center explains:
"A series of analyses -- including analyses by the Brookings Institution, Goldman-Sachs, and a joint analysis by the business-led Committee for Economic Development, the Concord Coalition, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- all have found that recent budget projections omit a number of likely costs that must be added back to gain a realistic sense of the budget deficits we face in coming years. The administration's forthcoming budget is expected to have approximately $200 billion in missing costs in the fifth year."
"Specifically, the OMB figures are likely to exclude the costs of fighting terrorism internationally after September 30, 2004; to fail to reflect the full costs of the Administration's own "Future Year Defense Plan;" to omit the costs of extending relief from the mushrooming Alternative Minimum Tax after 2005; and to omit the costs of extending a series of very popular tax breaks."
Using real-world assumptions, the center calculates that the deficit is likely to rise from $374 billion in 2003 to between $440 billion and $500 billion in 2009. It adds, "The administration's contention that the deficit will be cut in half in the next five years thus is essentially an accounting fiction, derived in large part by omitting very likely or inevitable costs, including costs for proposals the administration itself hopes and intends to submit in the years ahead." Let's see Bush keep his word on his deficit pledge.
Bush peppered the tail end of his speech with references to domestic policy initiatives that have been designed either to steal thunder from the Democrats or to jazz up his social conservative base. To achieve the former, he praised the recently passed Medicare prescription drug benefit and proposed a refundable tax credit that would allow lower-income Americans to buy their own basic health insurance. Then he signaled he would support a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and pressed Congress to pass legislation that would lead to greater federal funding of religious groups that provide social services. In a weird twist, Bush did not refer to his recent space exploration initiative. But he did call for doubling federal funding of abstinence education as a means of combating sexually transmitted disease among teens, for devoting $300 million to a program to assist newly released prisoners, and for sports teams owners, coaches and players to launch a campaign against steroids use in professional sports.
"My fellow citizens," Bush said, "we now move forward, with confidence and faith." At least, the Bush campaign does. The speech was a sign that Bush and Karl Rove see no need to modulate, triangulate, or recalibrate. They have nothing to apologize for. Nothing to explain. They are quite pleased with the path they have charted this past year. They will stay the course. They are not ducking. There is no rope-a-dope. That probably is good news for Democrats. Bush is a fixed target, defiantly standing by his policies and daring his opponents to bring it on.
David Corn is author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).