When Congressional Democrats asked Governor Gary Locke of Washington state to deliver the party's response to President Bush's State of the Union address, they ceded what could have been be their highest profile media moment of the year to someone who does not sit in the House or Senate. It was a mistake.
Locke is an able if not particularly exciting administrator, and he had some good things to say about the way that states -- and the people who live in them -- could be harmed by administration proposals to roll back environmental protections, skew tax cuts to benefit the richest Americans and privatize Medicare. But he danced around foreign policy questions, and he never landed a serious blow on Bush's domestic agenda.
If ever there was a moment when Democrats in Washington needed to ask someone who is in the thick of the fight on Capitol Hill to describe their differences with the administration, it was following this year's State of the Union address. After the November, 2002, elections put conservative Republicans in charge of the House and Senate, and with the Bush administration now moving aggressively to launch a war with Iraq, advance an economically preposterous "stimulus" plan and nominate right-wing judicial activists for openings on every federal bench, Democrats in Congress could not afford to surrender the rebuttal spot that remains one of the few openings for a serious critique of the president's highest-profile annual address.
To be fair to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, they did organize a "prebuttal" press conference on Monday, where Pelosi did a decent job of arguing that the administration needs to broaden its definition of security to include economic security at home. Daschle showed some rhetorical flair when he announced that, "The state of our union today is anxious. The triple threat of war, terrorism and recession are combining to make Americans unsure about their future and unclear about the course our nation is taking."
But, for the most part, Daschle still seemed to be having a hard time presenting a surer, clearer vision of the course Democrats would set. Neither Locke's rebuttal nor the Daschle-Pelosi "prebuttal" sounded like the sort of rip-roaring alternative that might energize opponents of the administration policies in Washington or beyond. For that, Americans needed to search out reports of Tuesday's Alternative State of the Union session in the Capitol, where members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus mounted a devastating assault on administration policies.
"We are holding an Alternative State of the Union address because we believe that Americans deserve a vision of a future of peace and justice rather than war and economic hardship and inequality," said California Democrat Barbara Lee, who co-chairs the 53-member caucus, as she opened the session. "At last year's State of the Union, President Bush gave us the axis of evil. Today, we face crises and possible war on multiple fronts. In fact, we face possible endless war because the doctrine of preemption knows no limits. It also brings us no security."
The Progressive Caucus' 15-page critique of the State of the Union (.doc file) as year three of the Bush presidency begins was delivered by Lee's co-chair, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich. It argued that President Bush has "brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Iraq, yet the Administration has not produced any compelling evidence linking Iraq to the attacks of 9-11, nor any evidence that Iraq poses a threat to the United States." It accused the White House of taking actions that had "squandered widespread international sympathy and support for the U.S. after the 9-11 attack," "assaulted basic civil liberties" and "(waged) class warfare against the majority of Americans, even as the nation sputters along the edge of a double dip recession." And it offered a dramatically different vision for where America should be headed, declaring:
"Today, Progressives in Congress offer an alternative
that will create peace and prosperity for all Americans:
* Progressives believe that a war with Iraq is unjustified
and the U.S. should halt the war preparations. Instead, the
U.S. should strongly support the UN inspectors in Iraq.
* Progressives believe that the national economy is in serious
trouble and needs a genuine stimulus. The stimulus must be
large, it must jump-start the economy immediately, it must
create new jobs, it must be fair; it must put money in the
pockets of the majority of Americans, and it should target
neglected areas of society, such as housing, schools, and
* Progressives believe all Americans deserve a guarantee of
high quality, affordable, health care. With the failure of
the private market to deliver health care to 41 million
Americans and affordable pharmaceuticals to senior citizens,
Medicare should be improved and expanded to give high quality
health care to every American and a prescription drug benefit
* Progressives believe that jobs should pay living wages, that
people be more easily able to form unions and bargain
collectively with their employers and that the federal
government should guarantee Social Security with the "full
faith and credit of the United States."
* Progressives in Congress believe that Americans should be
assured of strong civil rights and liberties, including
America, gather up your courage. We can make America a better
place. The future can be better than the past. There is an
alternative to the Bush Administration."
Progressive Caucus members, especially Kucinich, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Washington Democrat Jim McDermott, have been in the forefront of organizing Congressional opposition to Bush administration plans to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq. But Caucus members focused at least as much on economic issues. And as they built the case against the administration, it was difficult not to wonder how much Tuesday's night's discourse might have been improved if a Congressional Progressive Caucus representative, say Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, had been asked to deliver the rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union on primetime television.
Sanders could have echoed his comments of earlier Tuesday, in which he said, "Unemployment is going up and we have lost 2 million good paying manufacturing jobs in the last two years, including many in Vermont. Poverty is increasing and the number of Americans who lack health insurance or are underinsured is also soaring. Instead of cutting back on Medicare and veterans' needs, and giving huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country, President Bush should be providing serious legislative proposals that will protect the needs of the middle class and working families of our country."
Just imagine how much more exciting it would have been if the rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union address had featured Barbara Lee announcing, as she did Tuesday: "Here in the United States, we hold ourselves up as model for all countries and peoples who seek to be free. We are not living up to this model. But we can. We can pursue peace and justice and through them achieve security. We can regrow this economy and create jobs and opportunities. We can preserve important existing protections, from affirmative action to reproductive freedoms to the Clean Air Act. We can invest in education, healthcare, and home building. And, next year's State of the Union could then be a reflection of how far we have come and how much progress we have made. That is the America that the Progressive Caucus envisions, and that is the future we will help forge."
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
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