George talked last Tuesday, as we all know, before a joint session of the US Congress, in his sixth State of the Union address. We've all heard or read it, at least all of us who care, and there's been lots of commentary about it. It was a much softer address than the previous ones were, talking about cooperation and bipartisanship. On the surface, it's easy to say that this “cooperation” and “bipartisanship” stuff is just empty rhetoric, things he's now forced to say because of the situation, but meaningless. Suppose, though, that it's genuine, that he's gotten the message from the people, from the voters, and that he really wants to change how he works with Congress, and the direction he's taking with policy and action.
As we consider that, we'll use two NPR items from Thursday's All Things Considered program: first, a short item about Dick Cheney and his Wednesday interview by Wolf Blitzer on CNN; second, an NPR interview with Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff.
In his talk with Mr Blitzer, Dick goes on at length and with strength about how deposing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do. His rant about that — and yes, it did come across as a rant — climaxed thus:
You can go back and argue the whole thing all over again, Wolf, but what we did in Iraq and taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do; the world is much safer today because of it.
NPR points out that this all sounds very different from the conciliatory State of the Union address the day before. When they talked with Joshua Bolten about that, here's what he said:
The president's tone in his State of the Union was intentionally non-confrontational. The president is gonna go forward with the plans that he's announced. Congress does retain the power of the purse. They're choosing not to exercise that. But the president also recognizes that what really counts here is what happens on the ground.There's the first hint that it's for show. The speech was “intentionally” conciliatory, but what's actually going to happen is whatever the president aimed to do anyway, at least to the extent that he can get away with it. And the history is that he gets away with a lot. It's up to this Congress to rein him in — not just for the sake of doing that, but to keep the controls on the presidency that the constitution intended, and that's best for the country.
To be sure, they've made some steps in that direction. The House, for instance, made it harder to renew the “tax cuts” by requiring that money cut from taxes actually be accounted for somewhere else in the system. And on the Iraq issue, the Senate just passed a “non-binding resolution” that opposes the president's plan to increase the troops in Iraq. Of course, that latter isn't much of a check or a balance, basically saying, “You can do what you want, and we won't hold the money back, but we really think this is a bad idea.” That might be of some use if the president really were interested in cooperation and bipartisanship. Alas....
Of course, the reason they passed a toothless resolution, rather than something that might actually make a difference, is that the control of the Senate is too thin, and legislators are afraid to vote against allocating money for the troops. The last time they did that they were accused of putting our troops in danger by refusing to buy them armor. Nothing is simple, and anything can be “spun” in multiple directions.
But when asked about Iraq and the troop buildup (at least they've seemed to've stopped calling it a “surge”) and the Senate resolutions, Joshua dodged, and pulled the discussion away from that, back to the “bipartisanship” thing:
There will be a lot of disagreement about the president's Iraq foreign policy going forward. We know that. The president is well aware of how much discomfort there is in the country about the path that he has chosen to pursue in Iraq, and has no illusions about that. But, while we recognize that, we also know that there are opportunities to work together on a lot of other issues and he laid out four really big ones in his State of the Union address. On some fundamental principles, there is agreement between the two parties, or at least there's opportunity for agreement between the two parties, and we're gonna try to use this year to try to take advantage of those areas of common ground and put some accomplishments across the goal line in those areas even in these final two years of the president's term.Well, yes, but what he's missing here, what the Bush administration is missing here, is that when you have something that the two parties agree on is not when you need to call on bipartisanship. When you have agreement on some fundamental principles, those are the things you can just get done, in the normal course of business, without doing anything special. Sure, there's still some give and take on the details... but those aren't the hard jobs.
The hard jobs are exactly the ones that the administration is dodging and is refusing to do bipartisan work on. They're the ones for which the administration knows that there's enough disagreement that the majority Senate control is too tenuous to block the president. They're the ones that the president can “go forward with the plans that he's announced,” knowing that he'll get away with it, ignoring what Congress and the American voters have said. And Joshua is right that “what really counts here is what happens on the ground.”
For more on the elections and the control of the House and the Senate, here's Joshua Bolten again:
We were obviously very disappointed here in the White House when the Republicans lost the majority in both Houses in the recent election, but one of the silver linings of that is that with Democrats now in control of both houses, the White House and the new Democratic majority now share some responsibility for putting accomplishments across the goal line for the American people and so I think, in a way, the new Democratic majority creates opportunities for the White House that didn't exist in the past to get some bipartisan cooperation for some of the biggest issues of the day like immigration, like energy, like healthcare, like education, which require bipartisan cooperation to get legislation done.Yes, he's “staying on message”, but look at what he's really saying: The “silver lining” is that we can now blame the Democrats. If the Bush administration can't ram through some horrid legislation, it's not that the legislation is bad, but that the Democratic-led congress has failed. If they can't get money allocated for an ill-advised scheme, it's not that the scheme is ill-advised, but that the Democrats have blocked it. That is the opportunity that didn't exist in the past, and no matter how the White House tries to spin things, what's happening on the ground is that Congress has a chance to put some controls on a government that's been amok for years.
What the president is talking about is not cooperation and bipartisanship, and they mustn't let the rhetoric stop them from using their sense where their sense is needed.