While the president’s State of the Union address on Jan. 20 has been the subject of much press scrutiny (including in this paper — Zach Jones, “A review of the dismal State of the Union,” 1/23), the Democratic rebuttal has attracted little attention. As is customary, immediately following the president’s address, an appointed member or members of the opposition party delivered rebuttal remarks. Last Tuesday night, it was Congressional Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle who gave the address.
When I sat down a few minutes before 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, my political spirits were high. The day before, Iowans had granted Senator John Forbes Kerry a decisive victory with 38 percent of the vote while Senator John Edwards picked up 32 percent in a surprising second place finish. Perhaps Democrats had finally come around and decided that candidates with foreign policy experience, sound policies and optimism were better bets than a candidate whose campaign was solely dominated by ire and hatred. Iowans had selected men who they wanted to be president rather than a man who would just bloody up the current one. I felt that the Democrats’ message was starting to congeal. I became excited at the prospect of a presidential race that gave Americans a choice and raised the level of public debate. My high spirits, however, were soon shattered on that Tuesday night.
While I was appalled by the president’s remarks just minutes earlier, the Democratic rebuttal was even more disappointing. In fact, the only comforting thought I had while watching the address was the knowledge that since few Americans keep their televisions on following the conclusion of the State of the Union, not many people would be watching this disastrous blunder.
Rebuttal is a misnomer for the address Congresswoman Pelosi and Senator Daschle delivered on Tuesday night. Rather than contest the president’s new proposals and initiatives, the two congressmen spent most of the time speaking about traditional Democratic issues including the rising numbers of uninsured Americans, the cost of education, and the precarious solvency of social security. Also mentioned was the need for tighter standards in homeland defense and the irresponsible nature of American foreign policy.
While all of these points were relevant and well argued, the address did not even scratch the surface of some of the major issues that formed the backbone of the State of the Union address. The remarks barely attacked the fiscal irresponsibility of proposing new hundred-million-dollar programs in the face of mounting deficits. The speech did not even mention the dramatic infringement upon American civil liberties currently permitted by the Patriot Act that the president wished renewed. The rebuttal completely ignored the president’s comments regarding faith-based initiatives and the “sanctity of marriage” that were a direct pander to a small minority of the electorate yet a powerful member of the president’s political base.
Instead of attacking these important matters, Senator Daschle focused some of his remarks on more regional issues such as country of origin labeling (COOL) for beef and other agricultural products. Daschle, who hails from South Dakota where President Bush is incredibly popular, is facing a serious challenge this fall from Republican John Thune, who lost to Senator Tim Johnson in 2002 by only 524 votes. His focus on COOL along with his discussion about visiting South Dakotan small towns and farms panders to his South Dakotan constituency whose industry is largely agricultural. This focus on a non-national concern coupled with the decision to ignore several important issues was truly disheartening. The delivery also hurt the quality of the rebuttal, as both Congresswoman Pelosi and Senator Daschle appeared nervous and spoke in shaky voices.
While I started Tuesday night optimistic about the Democrats and their message, I went to bed completely dismayed. Democrats were slaughtered in the 2002 midterm elections because they did not offer an alternative. 2002 was an election without choice. If Democrats want to avoid another catastrophic outcome in 2004, the party will have to take a stand on the tough issues, make understandable and convincing arguments, and stick to its positions. Congresswoman Pelosi and Senator Daschle’s remarks were the worst possible way to start this election year. I only hope that the Democratic Party is able to realize its mistake with enough time left to challenge the current Republican regime on the important issues that face America and the future course of this republic.
Jonathan Menitove is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.