President’s Address Provides Analytical Template for 110th

Posted January 23, 2007 at 3:52pm

It is my challenge to write a column that will appear the morning after the State of the Union address — but that has to be written and edited the morning before the address is delivered. I could, of course, write something wholly unconnected to the speech, but let’s face it — that would be pretty discordant, given the significance of this speech for the 110th Congress. So I have decided to try something in between. [IMGCAP(1)]

First, on the SOTU. Here is what I am looking for as I focus on a speech that is 24 hours away, things I will use as an analytical template today, the day after the speech:

• How does President Bush handle Iraq? He has to deal with it in a frontal fashion, but he cannot let it overshadow either the rest of his message or his domestic agenda, or send the message to the American people that he is a monomaniac. But making sure that Iraq does not engender the kind of response from Congress that leaves Members unwilling or unable to focus on the rest of his message is no easy task. And the level of visible tension in the room over Iraq will give us some guidance about its overarching dominance as The Issue, about the depth of the dividing line — and about the strategy that both parties’ leaders have surely worked through about how to respond to the commander in chief (as the public watches) on the Iraq War.

• How does the president structure his speech’s applause lines? Every good speechwriter knows exactly which lines will generate applause or another response. And the speechwriter — and the president — know which lines will generate universal applause, with all the Members jumping out of their seats, and which ones will have half the Members standing and cheering and the other half sitting and jeering (or sitting on their hands in stony silence). The fact is that the past five SOTUs have had far more of the latter lines, designed to get the Republicans up and cheering with the Democrats sitting down, than those that get the whole chamber rocking — in other words, SOTUs for a divider, not a uniter. Is this speech different? And will there be some lines where there is a division — but where more Democrats stand and cheer while more Republicans jeer? Immigration comes to mind.

• Where does the president draw his lines in the dust? Where, in other words, does he make clear that he will veto things Congress sends to him, demand specific actions on Congress’ part, or say that on this bill or provision, he is unwilling to compromise? And where does he make clear that he is ready to deal?

Whatever Congress’ desires or intentions, the fact is that the tenor of our politics will be set more by the president’s intentions and actions. Iraq may, of course, so dominate that nothing else can be done — it could be the 8 million-pound gorilla dominating the policy process and poisoning the atmosphere sufficiently to overwhelm everything else. But beyond Iraq, if the president decides he does not want to compromise seriously on energy, the environment, health policy, education or Social Security, then nothing serious will happen, whatever the intentions of the leaders of both parties in Congress. If the president is willing to deal — willing to create a half-dozen equivalents of the No Child Left Behind Act — that is not sufficient to make action happen but is a necessary condition.

One speech, even a State of the Union, does not tell us whether words will be translated into deeds or whether intentions will translate into actions. But this one is a better rough indicator of the year we have ahead than any other.

***

On to a couple of other topics that Congress needs to address quickly and directly, regardless of the SOTU.

The first is the decision by the Justice Department to fire a half-dozen U.S. attorneys. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales swore last week that he would never let politics be injected into the appointment process for U.S. attorneys. His actions directly belie his words. The most egregious is the firing of San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, who not only took on then-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and those who bribed him, but also has conducted wide-ranging investigations into other areas of public corruption, including those involving current and former Members of Congress from Southern California. Close behind was the firing of Paul Charlton in Arizona. He was deep into investigations of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) on allegations of influence peddling and questionable land deals.

There are no allegations of wrongdoing against these two U.S. attorneys or the others who are being canned; indeed, they have been widely recognized for their diligent, aggressive and courageous willingness to take on political powerhouses where public corruption may be present. This set of actions by Gonzales reminds one of former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) actions firing ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and committee members Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) for doing their duty and taking on allegations against then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in an honest fashion. That stunk, and so does this — and Congress needs to get to the bottom of it, through aggressive oversight.

Finally, the announcement by a newly minted presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), that she will forgo both the presidential public funding available in the primary process and, if she is nominated, in the 2008 fall campaign, underscores the reality that the presidential campaign financing system crafted in 1976 is utterly broken.

The fact is, the system served us well for a couple of decades after it was enacted in reaction to the campaign scandals of 1972. But because the dollars involved were not indexed to inflation, the law has become wholly anachronistic. This means that the presidential system is now even more skewed in favor of those who can raise staggering sums of money — roughly $2 million every week for this year if you want to have the ante ($50 million in cash by January 2008, raising twice that to reach the net) to play seriously in the game — from $2,100 contributions. Think about it: rounding up 1,000 people every week who will max out for you. Now think about when all the Senators who will be trying to do that will have time to do public policy during the coming year.

The need to reform the system is now urgent. The path to reform was set out reasonably and intelligently by two former Federal Election Commission chairmen, Michael Toner and Scott Thomas, coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum. We need action on this issue, and their plan is a good template from which to start.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.