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Tuesday, February 07, 2006
ON THE DAY BEFORE PRESIDENT BUSH'S EMINENTLY DISPOSABLE STATE OF THE UNION SPEECH, I heard a story that I'll never forget. It was told by Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who was addressing a small audience in Washington. A military helicopter pilot from Iowa, serving in Iraq, was killed when he noticed a ground-to-air missile headed his way and, in a split-second reaction, swerved his chopper so that he and his co-pilot split second reaction, swerved his chopper so that he and his co-pilot would take the hit and his 18 passengers would be spared. Vilsack placed a condolence call to the widow, who stopped him in midsentence, "I think about it this way", the woman said. "Those 18 men needed my husband more in that split second than I'll need him for the rest of my life."

Vilsack, who is probably running for President- and should be - used the story to illustrate the sacrifice and sense of community that is at the heart of a successful democracy. The current Administration, he said, "is ripping away at the fabric of the American community". The story lingered as I listened to Bush once again ask nothing from the American people in his speech and, worse, issue his annual call for lower taxes. The President's addiction to tax cuts had become rhetorical boilerplate, so totally expected that it's no longer noticed. But I found it particularly this time.

There was a case for mild cuts when Bush came to office. The economy was stalling, and there was a budget surplus. We have big deficits now, and an economy chugging along at 4percent growth. Bush's addiction is a reflection of ideology run amok and a twisted reading of recent history. Yes, the economy began to pick up when Ronald Reagan offered his famous 1981 tax-reduction plan, but it continued to grow when Reagan raised the taxes in 1982 and '83. And how to explain the economic boom of the 1990s? Bill Clinton's tax increases for the wealthy, whcih were smaller proportionally than Reagan's certainly didn't seem to dampen the irrational exuberance of the wealthy.

A case can be made for targeted tax cuts to encourage socially beneficial behavior like research into alternative cars and fuels. A case can also be made -- though Bush would rather see Brokeback Mountain than make it -- for targeted tax increases to discourage things like, well, an addiction to oil. But what are we to the elimination of the estate tax, which would cost $750 billion over 10 years? Republicans have done a clever bit of marketing here by calling it the death tax. Perhaps Democrats should nickname estate-tax repeal the Paris Hilton Empowerment Project. Whatever you call it, it is an obscenity to ask nothing of heiresses while helicopter pilots are giving everything.

The tax obsession certainly makes it hard for the Presiden to propose anything useful in his State of the Union speeches. His vaunted energy independence initiative was a mirage, a minor reshuffling of programs that already exist or a reinstatement of those cut in previous years. At least one of Bush's proposals - the goal of reducing our dependence on "Middle Eastern" oil 75percent by 2025 - resulted in an embarrassing retreat. Bush's Energy Secretary, Samuel Bodman, retracted the pledge a day later, saying the President had offered an "example", not a promise.

Actually, I missed Bush's exhilarating, if oft misguided, boldness. And there were ways Bush could have broken new ground last week and remained true to his values. Some conservatives - including the authors of a recent cover story in the Weekly Standard magazine - believe it's time for Republicans to embrace a mandatory universal health-insurance plan. Representatives of American industry - which is staggering under its health car burden-have been meeting quietly with labor unions, think tanks and interest groups in Washington to try to find common graound. In 1993, Senator John Chafee proposed a Republican model of universal coverage that subsidized the wroking poor and taxe the rich to pay for it; if the Clinton had been willing to compromise. They weren't and later regretted it. Perhaps the President shoudl reintroduce a version of the Chafee plan and see if the Democrats are still opposed. That would be a fight worth having.

But Bush seemed too tired, defensive and preoccupied by a multitude of Middle Eastern woes to be up for any such heavy lifting. His speech was a dispiriting spectacle for both parties. The Democrats only noticeable contributions came when they, led by a smirking Hilary Clinton, aplauded the failure of Social Security reform. I kept thinking about the woman out in Iowa, wondering if she was watching, embarrassed by how unworthy this government is of her husband's sacrifice.

(Source: IN THE ARENA/TIME MAG by: Joe Klein. To see a collection of Klein's recent columns, visit time.com/klein)
posted by infraternam meam @ 11:27 PM  
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Name: infraternam meam
Home: Chicago, United States
About Me: I am now at the prime of my life and have been married for the past 25 years. Sickly at times, but wants to see the elixir vita, so that I will be able to see my grandchildren from my two boys.
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