There’s not much meaningful to say about the State of the Union Address–a statement so weak in ideas that it seemed like Jim Webb was the real speaker tonight and George Bush was just his amateur warm up act. His domestic policies will go no where, including his health care proposals which I already discussed here and here. His Iraq plan is just more of the same failed strategy.
In a speech which lacked substance the tone might be more important. Bush typically uses code words which must be evaluated to determine the real meaning of his statements. Past speeches have included code words to the religious right to reassure them that he is on their side even if he is claiming to be a compassionate conservative. Rather than taking advantage of the State of the Union to bridge the partisan gap, Bush carefully chose his words, deviating from the prepared text, to show that he has no intention of cooperating with Democrats. Washington Wire, a blog at the Wall Street Journal, describes the important variation from the prepared text:
President Bush departed from the prepared text of his State of the Union address to graciously congratulate Nancy Pelosi on her history-making selection as the first female Speaker of the House. Then he departed from the prepared text a second time to take a jab at Pelosi and the rest of the new Democratic majority of Congress.
In the prepared text of the speech, sent out by the White House some 40 minutes before Bush ascended the House rostrum, the president was to say, “Some in this Chamber are new to the House and Senate – and I congratulate the Democratic majority.” When Bush delivered the line, however, he paid tribute to the “Democrat majority.”Dropping the “ic” from the word “Democratic” may seem insignificant, but it was almost certainly a deliberate move by Bush, who has used the phrase “the Democrat Party” for months as a way of needling his opponents.
Republicans have periodically referred to their opponents as belonging to the “Democrat Party” for many decades, and the phrase was a particular favorite of former Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. A recent Washington Post column filled in the backstory: according to the Columbia Guide to Standard American English, McCarthy “sought by repeatedly calling it the Democrat party to deny it any possible benefit of the suggestion that it might also be democratic.”The phrase lay largely dormant for years, however, until President Bush resuscitated it during last fall’s midterm election season and made it a mainstay of his public remarks about the opposition party. It has since been widely adopted by many Republican lawmakers, conservative political activists, and conservative commentators and pundits at media outlets like Fox News.
For all of Bush’s talk tonight about crossing party lines to work with the new Democratic Congress, it is the missing two letters that may offer the clearest indication of whether partisan tensions are really like to fade in the waning years of Bush’s presidency.
They did make one error in attributing the resumption of “Democrat” to Bush last year. Actually Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz have been promoting this since the 1990’s. Hendrick Hertzberg, writing in The New Yorker, also quotes Bob Dole as once resorting to this insult. It isn’t as important whether it was Bush who resumed this McCarthyite tactic. What matters is that Bush chose to perpetuate this, quickly providing an answer to those watching the State of the Union for clues as to whether Bush has learned anything about bipartisan cooperation after losing control of Congress.