Not much new to say about the State of the Union Address because, well, it didn’t say much new. Substance-wise, it was more of the same, rhetorically, it was flat, and as for the delivery – well, no surprises there. Bush is still trying to pull a fast one on the American people with his social security numbers; when he said that FDR could not have imagined today’s economy, it was hard not to wince at the steady rollback of the New Deal of which Bush’s agenda is but the latest example. His allusions to FDR in defending his foreign policy were equally unpersuasive. If Bush expects plaudits for courage for politely suggesting to his allies in Saudi Arabia that their people get more opportunities to express themselves (meaning what? Voting for American Idol?), then we really are defining deviancy down. The moment shared between the Iraqi and American women was indeed poignant. It was, I couldn’t help thinking, an interesting echo of the moment shared between grieving Iraqi and American mothers in Farenheit 9/11. Whether one agrees more with George Bush’s or Michael Moore’s view of the architects and consequences of that war, there’s a great deal of chosen and unchosen sacrifice and suffering that should be sobering for all of us. Bush’s stated commitment to the advancement of liberty, of course, didn’t stop him from once more floating the writing of bigotry into the constitution. Just another reason that Bush’s eager exclamations of liberty fell as flat as his last line about the long and twisting road to freedom, a pale shadow of a truly great American’s promise (more urgent and more seemingly distant than ever) that “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I’d say Edwards accomplished what he set out to do with his speech: he put forward a broad and attractive plan, shared a set of sympathetic values, and projected energy, confidence, and optimism. No big surprises, but I don’t think there were intended to be (there are all manner of big surprises I would’ve liked to see, generally falling into the category of John Edwards morphing into John Lewis). “Two Americas” works as a unifying theme, contrary to the grousing of the National Review crowd, because it speaks to a reality which most Americans intuitively recognize and implicitly sets forth an ideal most Americans are ready to work and sacrifice for. Glad to see Edwards at least intimating the connections between different forms of social, political, and economic equality in this country – in education, in healthcare, and such. And it was heartening to hear this graph:
We can also do something about 35 million Americans who live in poverty every day. And here’s why we shouldn’t just talk about but do something about the millions of Americans who live in poverty. Because it is wrong. And we have a moral responsibility to lift those families up. I mean the very idea that in a country of our wealth and our prosperity, we have children going to bed hungry. We have children who don’t have the clothes to keep them warm. We have millions of Americans who work full-time every day to support their families, working for minimum wage and still live in poverty. It’s wrong. These are men and women who are living up to their bargain. They’re working hard, they’re supporting their families. Their families are doing their part; it’s time we did our part.
And that’s what we’re going to do, that’s what we’re going to do when John is in the White House. Because we’re going to raise the minimum wage. We’re going to finish the job on welfare reform. And we’re going to bring good paying jobs to the places where we need them the most. . And by doing all those things we’re going to say no forever to any American working full-time and living in poverty. Not in our America, not in our America. Not in our America. Not in our America.
Obviously, it’s urgent to assert that the New Deal is something which creates a middle class, not something which saps it, and certainly anyone running for office in this country should speak to a strategy for expanding and securing the middle class. But that said, the ongoing invisibility of the American poor in Democratic party rhetoric of the past decade is disgraceful. It’s a tragic abdication of the responsibility of a real social contract. As Edwards reminded Kerry during the primary campaign, while Kerry was heading off voluntarily to war, Edwards was trying to figure out how to afford to go to college. And as Sharpton reminded Edwards, not everyone then – or now – could get a job as a mill worker. So the recognition of the plight and the promise of the working poor in the Vice Presidential acceptance speech is a step in the right direction, even if “finishing the job on welfare reform” sounds somewhat macabre. Let’s hear more about the working poor from Kerry tomorrow.
Hope is a winning theme. “Hope is on the way,” is a frustrating formulation though. Some of us who’ve had the pleasure of several rallies with the Rev. Jesse Jackson like to joke about the frequency with which the “Keep hope alive” slogan is repeated, but that’s fundamentally a good slogan because it offers an urgent, achievable imperative. “Hope is on the way” is inherently top down, and Edwards’ use of it – tell each of the beleaguered people you know that hope is on the way – reinforces the idea that the Kerry-Edwards ticket is some sort of superhero flying through the city saving victims. I’d like to hear less about hope being on the way and more about how we’re going to join together to take on the work of bringing it into being.
Right now C-SPAN is replaying a National Chamber Foundation conference at which Newt Gingrich was invited to represent the Republicans and the Democrats were represented by – you guessed it – the DLC’s Al From. It’s a pretty painful exhibition of the two of them gloating about how much they have in common. True, insofar as Newt Gingrich’s Republicans represent the direction in which Al From would like to shepard the Democrats (his top three under-discussed goals for the Democratic party: eviscerating labor and environmental protections in trade agreements, scaling back the New Deal, and co-operating better with Republicans)…The most ridiculous moment however, would have to be From’s argument that they’re parallel figures in that Newt discovered a “New Republican” movement, and he discovered a “New Democrat” one. The difference, of course, is that Newt’s Republicans made a resounding victory in ’94 by mobilizing their base and Al’s Democrats inspired a new verb – “Sister Souljah” – for what they did to their base and bequeathed a statistical tie in 2000. Newt Gingrich has much more in common with Howard Dean than with Al From – which may be why he used his podium to lavish praise on From and castigate Dean, and may also be why Dean is so much more popular than From these days (for more on Newt as organizer, check out David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf’s book)
Bob Kerrey writes an panegyric to the median voter theorem disguised as a call to political courage:
So, show me the person, like Mr. Lieberman, who has angered a partisan Democratic audience with an unpopular idea and you have someone with what it takes to be our next president. And the next time you jump to your feet with applause for a candidate who says what you want to hear, remember that you may be leading them — rather than the other way around.
God forbid the agenda of a Democratic Presidential candidate should be influenced by Black people, poor people, the labor movement, and those other “special interests.”
Good thing after Kerrey lost the primary in 1992 we were saved from having the standard bearer of the Democratic party be someone who dismantles the values and institutions of the New Deal in the name of political maturity and sees leadership in turning away from the constituencies which represent the base of the party and its moral compass – oh, wait…