Thursday, January 22, 2004

Here are the words George W. Bush should have spoken to the nation last night:

“My fellow Americans: The state of the union is healthy. The economic recovery is picking up steam. We are winning the war against terrorism. Keep the faith. God bless. Good night.”

If President Bush had kept it short and sweet, the American people would have stood on their living couches and thunderously applauded. Brevity is,after all, the soul of wit.

Alas, the art of short political speeches went out sometime soon after the Gettysburg Address, which was only a few hundred words and took less than 5 minutes to deliver.

Instead, Mr. Bush held us captive for just under an hour. That was an improvement over his predecessor. Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses were 11/2 hour exercises in self-aggrandizement.

I always felt Mr. Clinton believed in his heart of hearts that if he could just go on prattling forever, he could conjure up some new multimillion-dollar program to solve every problem in America, including exterminating the fly swimming around in my soup or fixing the drip on the bathroom faucet.

Bill Clinton felt our pain so deeply there was no price he was not willing to have taxpayers bear to make us feel better. Of course, you needed a cash register to ring up the cost of Mr. Clinton’s new spending pronouncements.

Mr. Bush too, has this unattractive tendency to believe there is a government agency to fix every leaky pipe in the nation. Mr. Bush may not have announced a national campaign to eradicate athlete’s foot, but it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch if he had. After all, he wants to send a man to Mars — not Paul O’Neill, regrettably — and that will cost $500 billion over 10 years. He wants to spend millions to promote holy matrimony. He wants to spend $200 million to fight obesity — why can’t we just tell fat people to stop overeating?

He says he wants to sizably increase funding for community colleges and job training and spreading democracy around the world. He wants to subsidize wheat and corn farmers. There will be more funds to fight AIDS in Africa and to purchase garbage trucks in Iraq.

He wants money for hydrogen-fueled cars, and a manufacturing czar.

Presumably the czar, much like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” can magically click the heels on her Ruby slippers and make $15 an hour factory jobs reappear. Can a Cabinet agency — the Department of Homeland Manufacturing — be far behind?

There seems to be in recent years a correlation between the length of the State of the Union speech and the size of the budget expansion in the upcoming year. Americans seem to approve when president’s roll out a wish list of new problem-solving federal agencies, as if for one night at least, they buy into the fantasy that government really is Santa Claus.

The State of the Union has become our one chance as Americans to ask Washington what our country will do for us. So the convention is now for the president to pander to us, and if the pollsters are right, that’s the way we like it. We want the goody bag at the end of the party.

What George Bush did not talk about was ending the spending spree in Washington that has become one of his unfortunate legacies. He said “we must spend tax dollars wisely,” but Congress has done anything but that in recent years. He pledges to hold spending increases to 4 percent this year. But so he has every year and every year the budget has accelerated at twice that pace. The pledge not to waste our tax dollars rings hollow given that in a matter of days, he will sign into law a budget-buster that provides money for Alaska skating rinks, Michigan swimming pools and Iowa indoor rain forests.

There were high points for freedom and free markets in the Bush speech to be sure. Mr. Bush wants to make tax cuts permanent (as opposed to Democrats, who want immediate repeal). Mr. Bush wants to expand tax-free individual retirement accounts to encourage saving. And most important, he wants to give Americans the option of investing their payroll taxes in a private account. These all will encourage faster economic growth and more choices for workers.

But there was still far too much false compassion in the Bush message and not enough fiscal restraint. There is no end to government compassion when the politicians are reaching into someone else’s pocket.

The expansion of government in recent years is arguably the biggest impediment to freedom and economic growth in America today. The State of Bush’s Union has become in some ways a State of too much dependency and a State of too much entitlement. With the federal budget now costing nearly $25,000 for every family in America, Mr. Bush should not add to the burden.

The White House should be warned: if Mr. Bush doesn’t start to get control of the runaway budget soon, next year we may be listening to John Kerry giving the State of the Union address.

Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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