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State of the Union: Wrapped in words

President George W. Bush again hinted at his strategy for getting his agenda passed in last night"s State of the Union address: if you want to change something, create an atmosphere of fear and inevitability; if you want to ignore something, say everything is all right. All one must do is refer to the carefully crafted sound-bites to recognize where the president is placing his priorities in his second term: the next four years are about overhauling long-established domestic policies and institutions to reflect a government whose primary--if not only--responsibility is security and defense. Everything else is, as the president said, 'discretionary.'

But don"t be fooled. 'Restraining the spending appetite of the federal government' and eliminating 150 government programs that do not reflect 'essential priorities' is not an exercise in streamlining administrative bureaucracy, as the president made it sound. If the last four years are any indication, it will mean deeper cuts to programs most Americans do consider essential: cuts for the EPA to regulate clean air and water, cuts for the FDA to regulate imports of foodstuffs, cuts to No Child Left Behind (if it ever gets funded), cuts to federal contributions for Medicaid, cuts to highway funding and then the big albatross that dwarfs them all, a gigantic hatchet to Social Security.

The brilliance of Bushspeak, and that of the Republican Party in general, is that they command the English language. Unless one abides by the useful aphorism that the 'devil is in the details,' the slogans sound pretty good. Let"s decipher a few of them.

  • 'Driven toward bankruptcy,' 'the money is yours,' 'voluntary personal accounts' and 'permanently sound.' The president"s crusade to fundamentally rewire the Social Security system is a classic example of creating a state of fear based on dire predictions and then coming to the rescue. First, as has been reported ad nauseam by Paul Krugman of the New York Times, switching to private accounts will cost the government more than shoring up the current system. The second and third sound bites are also beyond disingenuous. Return on the accounts will depend on stock rates, which are driven up by demand. The government cannot possibly hope to achieve the historically unprecedented return rates of 6 or 7 percent without blocking early withdrawals and regulating individual investment rates. Finally, does Bush really believe he is better than FDR? While he can make Social Security 'permanently sound,' we should apparently excuse 'the founders of Social Security,' who could 'not have foreseen' conditions 70 years later.

  • 'Junk lawsuits.' Intended to set the stage for a debate on tort or medical liability reform by presuming that most lawsuits are, indeed, 'junk' and result in higher medical liability insurance costs. The onus to prove otherwise is now shifted to the defense and those rapaciously greedy trial lawyers. Few would argue that trial lawyers are necessarily saints, but then neither are the pharmaceutical industry or incompetent physicians. What the president neglects to mention, is that 1) plaintiffs already lose 70 percent of malpractice suits, 2) huge compensatory awards are rare and 3) capping financial awards in states like Texas has not retarded the rise in medical malpractice insurance costs.

  • 'America will... be in a supporting role', '[we will help] that proud nation secure its liberty.' The lengthy section devoted to Iraq reflects the second part of the Bushspeak strategy for framing the debate: make a situation that is increasingly critical seem under control in order to relinquish responsibility. It is a bit difficult to accept the president"s insistence that the United States can now give the Iraqi army and security forces control over their country based on one day of voting. Though, I"ll admit, it is reassuring that we will now be funding the training of the Iraqi military.

The absurd overall message, however, as reflected in the quotes above, is that through their vote for freedom and liberty, the Iraqi people now understand the intrinsic value of democracy (much as Americans have over our 300 year history), and only need a helping hand from the United States.

Voting is an integral part of democracy, and high turnout at the polls last Sunday was encouraging, but casting a ballot is only an expression of freedom assuming certain fundamentals. The fact remains that you cannot have a functioning sovereign democracy amidst chaos, violence, weak institutions and ethnic conflict. But then, these are pesky details that will no doubt fall in place with time. All that"s left to worry about are the words.

Jared Fish is a Trinity junior and president of Duke Democrats.

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