President Barack Obama’s entrance into the House chamber, even more than the Inauguration, sent chills up my spine. This scene is more familiar than an Inauguration, and just so, to see Obama come down the aisle after the Sargeant-of-Arms announces, "Madame Speaker, the President of the United States," well, it was a wonderful moment. And, true to form, Obama delivered a masterful speech, balancing warnings about the immediate economic prospects with hope for the future and a plan to get from one to the other.
Obama was shy about the details last night. As with the stimulus bill, look for Obama to suggest broad outlines and work with Congress on the details. And, last night was not about details. It was about rescuing his campaign vision from the strong currents unleashed by the economic downturn, to show how it is not enough to tread water through the current economic mess but that we must also make the long-term investments in energy, education and health care that have been deferred while Reagan and his heirs re-organized the economy in such a way that the captains of industry care more about their bonuses than the long-term viability of their companies.
Giving the response to a Presidential address is always a challenging task. I have only seen it done well twice, by Gov. Christine Whitman of New Jersey in 1993 and by Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia in 2007. Last night’s response was given by the much-touted rising star of the Republican Party, Governor Bobby Jindal. Earlier in the day, someone whose judgment I respect greatly had told me to keep an eye on Jindal, that he was a man of substance. So, I eagerly stayed tuned.
There were two problems with the speech, one stylistic and the other substantive. Governor Jindal’s delivery was off, he was unable to caress the camera in the manner of, say, Gov. Sarah Palin, and the intonation was child-like, a fact reinforced by the Governor’s extremely youthful look. Even Brit Hume on Fox News had to admit, "The speech read a lot better than it sounded. This was not Bobby Jindal’s greatest oratorical moment." When you are a Republican rising star, and you get panned on Fox News, you know you really bombed.
Brit Hume notwithstanding, the speech did not read better than it sounded. It read like the screed of someone living in a parallel universe. His claim that lower taxes would lead to economic recovery skirts the fact that George W. Bush and the GOP Congress lowered taxes and still ran the economy into the ditch, to say nothing of the memory that marginal tax rates topped out at ninety percent during the economic boom of the 1950s when a Republican president named Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office. Tax rates matter, but the view that they determine economic behavior is ridiculous: Specific, targeted tax cuts definitely affect economic decision making, but so long as you are not taxed at one hundred percent, there is always an incentive to make more money.
Jindal’s choice of spending targets was also strange. He objected to the $8 million for high speed rail in the stimulus bill. Maybe they don’t need it in Louisiana, but putting in high speed rail tracks along the Northeast Corridor would lower dependence on foreign oil and improve the quality of life for those who must commute anywhere near I-95. He spoke disparagingly of $140 million for volcano monitoring, though surely a Governor of Louisiana should know what horrors can occur when the government is not prepared for natural disasters.
Which recalls the strangest moment in the speech. Jindal told a tale about the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which was not exactly the GOP’s finest moment, to make the point that, as he put it, "The strength of America is not found in our government." But that misses the point as the poor citizens of New Orleans know better than most. The strength of the American people must be expressed in our government too. The lesson of the levee-break after Katrina is that a political ideology that views government with contempt is ill-equipped to make sure the government is prepared to handle the kinds of challenges with which only a government can cope.
So, Jindal thinks government per se was the problem in the response to Katrina when in fact it was the GOP’s government, from the over-flying President to the wildly incompetent FEMA administrator, that was the problem. No wonder he also thinks that the economic mess that was created by years of the GOP encouraging greed and the sheer venality of the business classes should be solved by those same people who got us into the mess. Americans know what the Republicans can’t bring themselves to admit: In the current crisis, government is the solution, the only solution.
"Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need?" That is not a bad characterization of the spending habits of the Bush years. But, President Obama made clear he wanted to invest in energy independence, education and health care. Which of those three do we not need? And, as for his moral concern for "our children" and the government’s deficits, mortgaging the future is something many of us do when we buy a home. The question is not whether it makes sense to borrow but why are you borrowing the money in the first place? To invest in energy independence seems like an investment that may pay off for our children. To give tax cuts to the top one percent, not so much.
So, there were two winners and two losers last night. The losers were Gov. Jindal and the worldview he espouses: If this is the best the GOP has to offer, substantively or stylistically, to quote a recent GOP officeholder, "Bring it on!" But, the GOP will find its bearings and its voice. While the first clear winner last night was Barack Obama the second winner was Sarah Palin.