Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Responding to the State of the Union Address

I am not, as a rule, a close follower of the proceedings surrounding the annual State of the Union address. I feel that it is primarily a formal ceremony; and, like most ceremonies, substance takes a back seat to style. The "equal time" practice under which the opposing party is then given air time for a response is not much better. It is usually a laundry list of refutations, delivered with less rhetoric than the President's speech (which over recent years really says something about the minimality of rhetorical skill), sustained only by the virtue of being shorter in duration.

This year, however, we did not need media hype to persuade us that things would be different. I wonder if the President entered the Capitol Building with the feeling that this might be the ultimate test of his faith and his decision to seek his own counsel through his personal communion with God. Given the direction that public sentiment has taken leading up to and then following the last election, one cannot imagine that his communion has room for the vox populi vox dei principle ("the voice of the people is the voice of God"). In such a context one can only wonder how many listeners/viewers were there anticipating a Passion Play, rather than a political address.

In the President's favor I have to admit that, not only was the ceremony a political address but also it maintained a level of dignity that had been absent in every preceding State of the Union he had given. Of course the dignity was enhanced by the shift of power in the Congress, meaning that the speaker-audience relationship could no longer fall back on the rhetoric of a football cheerleader revving up the fans. Where there was agreement, it was enthusiastically supported; where there was disagreement, it was evident, but not blatant. In the end there was no Passion Play, and any efforts at substance were kept at a minimally safe level.

Things changed the Jim Webb delivered the response, however. There had been some talk about whether or not the response should be delivered to the same audience in the same chamber (thus obliging the Vice President, if not the President himself, to sit in attendance). I am glad that decision was not made. In a more august setting Senator Webb might have opted to cool down some of his rhetoric, and that would have been a mistake. Yesterday I regretted the lack of anger being voiced by those who would seek to be the next President. Webb understood the rhetorical impact of anger, but he also knew how to control it. While rants may play to the mass audience of Comedy Central, Webb opted for being cool and honest; and, for the first time I can recall, we were hearing a response which, itself, really demanded a serious response.

Fortunately, the full text of Webb's response is on the Born Fighting PAC Web site. (What is going to happen to this PAC now that Webb is in the Senate, by the way? Presumably there is some regulation against a PAC being chaired by a member of Congress, and I would think that it would even be suspect for him to advise other members of the PAC. I am pretty solidly behind the three goals of this PAC. I am glad they mean so much to Webb; but I hope that he will now concentrate on achieving them as a Senator, rather than as the Chair of a PAC. Perhaps the PAC can now disbanded: It achieved its most important material subgoal, which has enabled the pursuit of the primary goals to move to another arena.) Having the full text means that we can do some text analysis, so I propose to try to get at why I felt that this was the high point of last night's proceedings.

I could begin by picking on beginning with celebrating the 400th anniversary of the colonization of Jamestown. This would mean starting by picking nits and would distract from the primary thrust of the argument. Besides, my reaction was probably colored by my recent aggravation with The New World, which I had just seen on cable; so I shall let it pass!

More important was the strategy of beginning with points of agreement tempered by knowing how to turn a "yes" into a "yes-but." This was how Webb addressed the initial themes of the President's address:

Let me simply say that we in the Democratic Party hope that this administration is serious about improving education and healthcare for all Americans, and addressing such domestic priorities as restoring the vitality of New Orleans.

This phrasing can be read as the first unsheathing of the sword. The electoral tide of November may have turned over discontent with our presence in Iraq, but Webb made it clear that, in his book, the mishandling of the aftermath of Katrina was just as much of a national disgrace and that this one was a matter of "domestic priorities."

From here he could move to a "yes-but" with sharper barbs:

Further, this is the seventh time the President has mentioned energy independence in his state of the union message, but for the first time this exchange is taking place in a Congress led by the Democratic Party. We are looking for affirmative solutions that will strengthen our nation by freeing us from our dependence on foreign oil, and spurring a wave of entrepreneurial growth in the form of alternate energy programs. We look forward to working with the President and his party to bring about these changes.

This time the message was "been there, still haven't seen anything done." Also, since the primary purpose of the response was to address "two areas where our respective parties have largely stood in contradiction," Webb chose not to go down the path on inquiry around enthusiasm for ethanol. The investigative ground has now been prepared for making a case that Archer Daniels Midland will probably be the next Halliburton (at least in terms of who gets the most slops from the public trough); but this was not the time for that case. Besides, Iowa has too strong a voice in determining who the Presidential candidates will be!

Instead, Webb launched into those "two areas:" the economy and Iraq. In the first area he moved with a flat-out challenge of the President's assertion of how good things are; and he did this with his first appeal to the wisdom of a past President:

In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy - that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today.

By making his rhetorical move this way, Webb not only attacked the President's assertion but called out the lie that lurks behind that folksy style that has colored Bush's "presentation of self" before the general public. Webb told that public that such style is just there for show: Bush is very much at home at the "apex" and has no sense of all of the "base." (It took Spike Lee to show us, in When the Levees Broke, that this is very much a family thing and that the President is very much the son of his parents.) As a result he cannot speak for the struggles of day-to-day-life than now plague most Americans and can only say that things look great from his (highly restricted) vantage point. Getting this point across to the general public is probably more important to Webb's one Born Fighting agenda than reminding that public about their discontent with the situation in Iraq.

Regarding that second "area," Webb realized that he had to do more than rub salt in the wound. He did this by trying to remind his audience of what the most important issues were:

The war's costs to our nation have been staggering. Financially. The damage to our reputation around the world. The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism. And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.

The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.

In other words we are bankrupting our economy (which, as I had previously observed, is what Osama wanted in the first place), the terrorist threat is still with us, and our actions in Iraq are not really benefiting those we are supposed to be helping.

This brings us to the coda. Here again, Webb based is argument on two past Presidents. In the spirit of bipartisanship, he sought the wisdom of past Republican Presidents:

Regarding the economic imbalance in our country, I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.

Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions. He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves "as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other." And he did something about it.

As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. "When comes the end?" asked the General who had commanded our forces in Europe during World War Two. And as soon as he became President, he brought the Korean War to an end.

These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.

Thus, the conclusion is a challenge to not just the White House but also the Congress. We know the actions that need to be taken. Who takes those actions is less important than whether or not they are taken at all. Thus, Webb has not only challenged the President to rise to the occasion but also challenged the Congress to assume the burden if the President fails to do so.

The worst thing we can say about politics today is that it has become too bland to recognize urgency. Bush could capitalize on that blandness in his State of the Union address. The best thing that can be said of Webb is that he pulled out all the right stops in an effort to remind us of the urgency.

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