Speech short on sustenance on politics today

Jack W.Germond & Jules Witcover

January 30, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The unintentional but clear message in President Bush's State of the Union address was the poverty of his domestic program. It was a speech like some food, aesthetically gratifying in its rhetoric on the war in the Persian Gulf but short on real sustenance.

The president played to his extraordinary popular support with his emotional exposition of the case for waging war against Saddam Hussein. If there was a special moment, it came in the prolonged applause from Congress and the galleries responding his declaration of praise for "every man and woman now serving in the Persian Gulf" -- applause one could suspect was being echoed by television viewers across the nation.

And Bush was never more eloquent or forceful in outlining the rationale for his decision to go to war with Iraq. "Among the nations of the world," he said, "only the United States of America has had both the moral standing and the means to back it up. We are the only nation on this Earth that could assemble the forces of peace. This is the burden of leadership -- and the strength that has made America the beacon of freedom in a searching world."

Or, as he put it a moment later: "Each of us will measure, within ourselves, the value of this great struggle. Any cost in lives is beyond our power to measure. But the cost of closing our eyes to aggression is beyond mankind's power to imagine. This we do know: Our cause is just. Our cause is moral. Our cause is right. Let future generations understand the burden and blessings of freedom. Let them say, we stood where duty required us to stand."

But the emptiness of the president's review of his record at home for the last two years and his plans at home for the next two made it clear how the war in the gulf has come to preoccupy -- perhaps consume -- his administration.

With one or two exceptions, Bush's proposals for domestic programs were essentially retreads -- plans he had advanced unsuccessfully in the past -- or vague repetitions of previous commitments.

He promised, for example, "legislation to achieve excellence in education -- building on the partnership forged with the 50 governors at the Education Summit." But he did not point out that the summit was held almost 18 months ago and has yet to produce either a plan or legislation.

Similarly, his plan for "enterprise zones" -- the pet idea of Housing Secretary Jack Kemp -- is one advanced a year ago without success. And his promise to "strengthen the laws against employment discrimination without resorting to the use of unfair preferences" was a veiled reference to the administration's ideas for a substitute for the 1990 civil rights bill Bush vetoed on the ground that it established racial hiring quotas.

There was no mystery about the president's political purposes. Although opinion polls have shown approval of his conduct of the war at extraordinarily high levels, they also have found

pervasive concern about the economy and dissatisfaction with Bush's performance on domestic questions. So the speech was at least in part an attempt to change that perception, albeit largely with blue smoke and mirrors.

The president also paid the politically obligatory deference to the most conservative elements of his own party. That purpose was apparent not only on civil rights but in his renewed call for some reduction in capital gains taxes, in his oblique declaration of support for a school voucher system and in his implicit jawboning of federal bank regulators to make it easier for more banks to make loans.

But the hard truth is that Bush would have been hard pressed to produce any applause lines if he didn't have Saddam Hussein to kick around.

The economy is in a recession and the federal government is paralyzed by a decade of deficits running out of control and the added burdens of the savings and loan scandal, the costs of the war and the sudden drop in revenues resulting from that recession.

In the long run, the State of the Union address isn't likely to have any serious effect one way or the other on the political fortunes of the president. These speeches are rarely memorable, and if this one is remembered, it will be for Bush's well-crafted definition of his justification for waging the war against Iraq.

But once that rhetoric has been parsed, the lesson to be learned was that there are serious problems and home and few weapons deal with them.

Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday.

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