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Posted by on Feb 2, 2005 in At TMV | 0 comments

Bush’s State Of The Union Speech And The Democrats’ New Problem

In reading the texts of President George Bush’s State of the Union Address and the Democrats’ response one characteristic screams out at you: now it’s the Democrats who lack "the vision thing."

Mind you, this is NOT saying what he said was shocking or will be quoted by future generations of high school students. And this is not an endorsement of his proposals, but a statement of fact: the Democrats now clearly have a problem that they didn’t used to have.

President George Bush, Sr. used to have a problem with "the vision thing," but now the situation is reversed where Bush – whether one agrees with his specifics or not — seems to have a long-term vision while the Democrats too often seem  like seasick passengers on a cruise ship trying awfully hard to find their sea legs. 

It’s a dilemma for the Democrats, who now seem to be coalescing around a more cohesive message and stance…but the problem is they are seriously behind on The Vision Thing.

Reading the President’s transcript and the Democrats’ response,  it’s as if the public is asked to choose between a White House prepared plate of piping hot, freshly cooked spaghetti and meatballs (which some may say is undercooked, overcooked, or even spoiled) and a bag of Democrat-provided uncooked pasta, sauce, garlic, olive oil and and seasonings that they insist is better than the cooked spaghetti on the plate.

Even if they’re right, it’s poor marketing in an era when it isn’t just "the medium is the message"  anymore, but the message provides the medium to mobilize the political pressures to get the needed vote straddlers in an era of intense polarization.

For instance, on Social Security reform (and this writer isn’t convinced by either side on this yet so this is NOT an endorsement) his argument is Vision Thing galore — even if specifics are argued and considered by some to be inaccurate or flat out misstatements. Bush is doing a better job of presenting a vision, even if in the end his plans fail to be enacted, while Democrats increasingly tend to sound more like stern lecturers rather than folks offering different specific options

Read this passage on Social Security  and you’ll see it’s crammed with The Vision Thing that GWB now seemingly has but Democrats don’t have — that President Bush, Sr. didn’t have, but Democrats once had:

One of America’s most important institutions — a symbol of the trust between generations — is also in need of wise and effective reform. Social Security was a great moral success of the 20th century, and we must honor its great purposes in this new century. (The system, however, on its current path, is headed toward bankruptcy. And so we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security.

Today, more than 45 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, and millions more are nearing retirement — and for them the system is sound and fiscally strong. I have a message for every American who is 55 or older: Do not let anyone mislead you; for you, the Social Security system will not change in any way. For younger workers, the Social Security system has serious problems that will grow worse with time. Social Security was created decades ago, for a very different era. In those days, people did not live as long. Benefits were much lower than they are today. And a half-century ago, about sixteen workers paid into the system for each person drawing benefits.

Our society has changed in ways the founders of Social Security could not have foreseen. In today’s world, people are living longer and, therefore, drawing benefits longer. And those benefits are scheduled to rise dramatically over the next few decades. And instead of sixteen workers paying in for every beneficiary, right now it’s only about three workers. And over the next few decades that number will fall to just two workers per beneficiary. With each passing year, fewer workers are paying ever-higher benefits to an ever-larger number of retirees.

So here is the result: Thirteen years from now, in 2018, Social Security will be paying out more than it takes in. And every year afterward will bring a new shortfall, bigger than the year before. For example, in the year 2027, the government will somehow have to come up with an extra $200 billion to keep the system afloat — and by 2033, the annual shortfall would be more than $300 billion. By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt. If steps are not taken to avert that outcome, the only solutions would be dramatically higher taxes, massive new borrowing, or sudden and severe cuts in Social Security benefits or other government programs. …I recognize that 2018 and 2042 may seem a long way off. But those dates are not so distant, as any parent will tell you.

ETC. There are some who adamantly reject Bush’s characterization of the system going broke when he says it will. But what is most notable here was the way Bush went on to make a hard sell case for privatization (which White House marketers now call "personal accounts.")

Indeed, Bush made his case so persistently, doggedly and directly that he almost sounded like infomercial maven Ron Popeil.  At any moment you expected him to take a roast leg of lamb out of the Ronco Showtime Rotissierie…

It’s this issue of communication of a larger vision — more than questions of whether the GOP agenda is out to disembowel pillars of the Democratic party such as trial lawyers and the pros and cons of gay marriage — that’s going to determine what happens in the next four years.

On the other hand, State of the Union addresses always provide roadmaps to what a President wants to do and Bush’s doesn’t seem to be destined to get much Democratic support. Nor does the White House seem to be readying to try to govern by consensus. The Democrats dilemma is now how to more effectively develop their own Vision Thing as they oppose the White House’s.

But politics is still about creating support. If the White House stance on certain issues such as gay marriage and immigration reform spark firestorms it will automatically undercut some support the White House needs to get programs through. Political capital can dissipate for a variety of reasons.

Another problem for the White House: so far its vision excites conservatives, repels many Democrats and leaves many independents asking for more details. A Vision not bolstered by a wide range of support is unlikely to be a vision that becomes a reality — or a widely accepted reality if it is enacted via power politics.

But if voters have to choose between a completed dish and a bag of ingredients, which one are they more likely to put on their table at dinnertime?