- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

That President Bush’s second inaugural address is still being parsed and argued over is itself an indication of the consequence sober listeners attributed to it at the time. Nevertheless, there was a passage in the “Freedom Speech” that hasn’t received much attention and probably deserves more, especially in light of the most memorable moment of Mr. Bush’s State of the Union speech — the extended embrace between Janet Norwood, mother of slain Marine Sgt. Robert Norwood, and Safia Taleb al-Suhail, whom the president described as “one of Iraq’s leading democracy and human rights advocates” and whose father was killed by Saddam Hussein.

What the president said in the second inaugural was this: “I ask our youngest citizens to believe the evidence of your eyes. You have seen duty and allegiance in the determined faces of our soldiers. You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs. Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself — and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character.”

What Mr. Bush was saying to the youth of America was: Join the army and help serve the cause of freedom.

An important line of criticism Democrats have directed at Mr. Bush almost from the time of the September 11 attacks is that he has asked too little by way of sacrifice from the American people. The argument became sharper as the federal budget deficit mounted and the costs of the ongoing, difficult Iraq operation continued to rise without sign of abatement.

Was this line of attack against Mr. Bush justified? I think in part, yes — though there was also, of course, a component of mere partisanship to it.

In most cases, the biggest target of Democratic criticism was the Bush tax cuts. How could Mr. Bush cut taxes during wartime? Why should the rich get richer at a time of national sacrifice? And how could Mr. Bush think of allowing the tax cuts to become permanent given the costs of the war and reconstruction, and the drastic turn in the federal government’s finances from black to red?

This theme, to which Democrats regularly recur, seems genuinely to reflect what most of them think. Yet one must ask whether it is entirely candid. Surely Democrats would not support in large numbers a cut in the top marginal income tax rate paid by millionaires even in times of peace and prosperity. Instead, they would likely point to unmet social needs at home toward which the tax revenue could be directed. No, the point Democrats are making has little to do with wartime sacrifice; it is instead simply the wartime expression of a broader point about fairness.

Moreover, it ignores rather than engages an obvious point: Republicans don’t cut taxes just because they want to return some swag to their rich contributors. They cut taxes on the theory that lower tax rates are good for the economy. Given the system shocks of the stock market bubble, corporate scandals and, finally, massive uncertainty following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration figured that swift and substantial tax cuts, as opposed to the phased-in cuts initially approved in 2001, would provide an important incentive for renewed economic growth. Now, one could argue with this position on the merits. And one could observe that its contingent urgency as a response to bad economic news is every bit as dubious as the Democrats’ wartime case for rolling tax cuts back, in that most Republicans favor tax cuts even if the economic news is very good indeed. But one ought not ignore the economic reasoning one way or the other.

Still, when Mr. Bush proffered advice not long after September 11 to Americans eager to do something to help their country, it sounded to most of them like “go shopping.” You would have to say that here, the president did not quite rise to the occasion.

But the sacrifice Mr. Bush has asked for is far more real than the politics of positioning in relation to a two percentage-point difference in the top marginal tax rate — which, though not inconsequential, is hardly a matter of life or death. No, the sacrifice Mr. Bush has asked for is borne and attested to by the person of Janet Norwood, among other mothers and fathers, wives and children, family and friends. And the embrace of Ms. Al-Suhail demonstrated what the sacrifice is for.

So, you parents and children of privilege, for whom the top marginal tax rate is a matter of more than theoretical interest, do not labor under the illusion that a willingness to pay 2 percent more is sacrifice. Recognize instead real sacrifice for a real cause, and consider risking it. You may not answer “yes,” but others do. And don’t complain that no one has asked you to do anything. Mr. Bush just did.

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