Today, the Washington Post’s op-ed page ran two liberal perspectives on the State of the Union address, one by Michael Kinsley and the other by E.J. Dionne. One piece contains a critical yet perceptive analysis of compassionate conservatism. The other is an incompetent attempt at a hatchet job. Can anybody guess which liberal wrote which piece?
Kinsley recalls that “when Bush started calling himself a ‘compassionate conservative’ during the 2000 campaign, critics dismissed this as an oxymoron — or ‘baloney’ to use the technical term. It seemed like an especially brazen example of the near-universal politicians’ vice of trying to have it both ways (and, more important, letting the voters have it both ways).” But Kinsley now acknowledges that Bush has given content to the concept — “He’ll spend money, he’ll send troops and he’ll use the bully pulpit. We’ll call that the compassionate part. Where’s the conservatism? It’s still there. First, in the anti-government rhetoric. And second, in the tax cuts.” Kinsley disapproves of the second half the formula, just a I disapprove of some parts of the first. But he does so only after he has earned the right to criticize the president’s overall course because he has the intellect to understand it and the honestly to describe it fairly.
And then there’s Dionne. Where Kinsley found in the speech a coherent though mostly misguided agenda, Dionne was able only to see a “compendium of wedge issues,” or just “wedges” as he’s soon calling them. What are these “wedge issues.” They are terrorism, taxes, and values. What makes them “wedge issues” instead of just issues? The fact that President Bush is talking about them in ways that may help him get re-elected. When Democrats claim that Bush’s policies have made us less safe against terrorism, or have eroded civil liberties, they are talking about the issues. When Bush defends his record on these issues, he’s “wedging.”
Dionne would claim that his resort to name-calling (he dubs Bush the “wedge hammer”) is justified because Bush’s discussion of the issues is unfair. But Dionne utterly fails to demonstrate unfairness. For example, to prove the unfairness of Bush’s criticism of the failure to deal effectively with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Dionne asks, “would Bush have favored attacking Afghanistan and Iraq way back then?” I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure he would have favored accepting offers of cooperation against bin Laden from the several Muslim countries that offered it. And I doubt he would have nixed proposed action against Afghanistan in the late 1990s, as Clinton did (see Richard Miniter’s book Losing bin Laden for a discussion of Clinton’s overall malfeasance in these matters).
Dionne descends to near incoherence in his next example, involving perhaps the best line of Bush’s speech — “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country.” Dionne responds as follows: “This clever cheap shot is easily answered. When your house is burning, asking neighbors for a hand and a hose and to call the fire department is not ‘asking for a permission slip’ to fight the fire. It helps to have reasonably good relationships with those neighbors.” But, of course, the issue with respect to intervening in Iraq was never whether we should ask for help. Bush did that repeatedly, and obtained some. The issue was whether U.N. approval (i.e. permission) was required. So Bush’s “clever” formulation is exactly right, and Dionne’s attempted analogy is silly and dishonest.
Next, Dionne criticizes Bush for “calling prematurely” for the renewal of the Patriot Act, which doesn’t expire until 2005. But if Bush is defeated, he won’t be around to use his influence to secure the Act’s renewal. Thus, to the extent that he regards the Act as a key element in protecting the homeland against terrorism. he should certainly try to have the Act renewed this year. Dionne doesn’t question the sincerity of Bush’s views on the Patriot Act. Rather, he seems to think that Bush is under an obligation to curb his convictions in order to avoid obtaining political advantage (sort of like his father did).
How is it possible to take someone who writes this kind of stuff seriously?
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