In the tradition I started with the 2004 presidential debates, I am going to tell you what I thought of the last night’s State of the Union address and the Democratic response. This is not a partisan piece to determine who was right (you all know my opinions), but rather a critique of the speeches and their effectiveness from the perspective of an apolitical observer. My intent is to determine quality of presentation and strength of argument.

State of the Union Address (Transcript)

President Bush began his address at about 9:10 p.m. (EST) and finished shortly after 10:00 p.m., making his speech in less than an hour. It was clear to me that he had practiced quite a bit because his delivery was measured and strong. He presented confidently and, uncharacteristically, the verbal flubs were few and far between (I noticed only two, and they were extremely minor).

The first half of the address was dedicated to domestic policy issues, and the central proposal was an overhaul of the weak and financially unstable Social Security system. Despite the rude attempts at interruption made by some on the left of the aisle, Bush laid out a good argument for why changes had to be made and made it very clear that, while open to compromise, a refurbished Social Security system must include personal accounts. He cleverly pointed out that government employees already have a similar plan that works beautifully, so why not expand it to all citizens? It’s debatable, yes, but a sound argument.

While Social Security was the central piece of the President’s domestic policy agenda, there were a number of other nontrivial proposals—a serious curtailing of federal spending on ineffective programs, a top-to-bottom revamping of the complex and unfair U.S. tax code, immigration reform, and more. While many of the proposals were presented vaguely, Bush did a reasonably good job of justifying the majority of them.

The second half of the address was dedicated to foreign policy issues. Without discussing nagging controversies like the dearth of WMDs in Iraq, he made a compelling argument that things are improving in that middle-eastern nation and will continue to do so. Additionally, Bush had stern words for the leaders of Syria and Iran—two nations that continue to harbor and support terrorists—but stopped short of threatening military action against them.

Praising the democratic elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine as wonderful opportunities to move toward a peaceful middle east, Bush also encouraged Saudi Arabia and Egypt to move toward more democratic forms of government. The core argument behind Bush’s foreign policy is that political freedom in the middle east is the path to peace in the middle east. That is a simple, powerful argument that is difficult to rebut, although I would like to see it explained in more detail (I understand it because I have the benefit of having studied international politics in some detail; I question if it would be so crystal clear to, say, a biology major).

Bush’s penultimate paragraph summed up the State of the Union address well, and is worth reprinting here:

In these four years, Americans have seen the unfolding of large events. We have known times of sorrow, and hours of uncertainty, and days of victory. In all this history, even when we have disagreed, we have seen threads of purpose that unite us. The attack on freedom in our world has reaffirmed our confidence in freedom’s power to change the world. We are all part of a great venture: To extend the promise of freedom in our country, to renew the values that sustain our liberty, and to spread the peace that freedom brings.

All in all, President Bush did a good job—whether you agree with him or not—of telling us how he sees the world and how he plans to make it a better place. In fact, this was possibly one of his best speeches to date. It was not without controversy, and many of the points were debatable (and should have been debated in the Democratic response . . . more on that in a minute), but he made his points and made them confidently and powerfully.

The Democratic Response (Transcript)

Please forgive the appearance of partisanship (I assure you that I say this from the perspective of an independent observer): What the hell are the Democrats thinking? This was the worst opposition response in my memory (both in content and presentation). The response was presented by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and quite poorly at that. Both seemed ill-at-ease, stared awkwardly at the teleprompters, and spoke in unmeasured, nervous tones.

Reid, in his attempt to appear down-to-earth, started with a story about his home town that went nowhere and nothing to do with anything. Eventually arriving at his topic for the evening—domestic policy—he focused primarily on arguing against Bush’s plans for Social Security. The Democrats, however, never explained what alternative reforms they support (if any) or specifically what is wrong with a limited amount of privatization. Bush proposed developing a bipartisan plan for reforming Social Security, and Reid’s odd response was basically to say, ‘Bush is wrong on Social Security.’

He did raise a valid point about the sheer size of the federal deficit—one of my big sticking points with the President—but, again, his comments lacked substance. I know that the deficit has gotten huge under Bush’s leadership, but the Democrats should be developing (and using opportunities like the State of the Union response to advertise) some solutions rather than merely pointing fingers.

Reid spoke about health care, saying “We need to make health care and prescription drugs affordable so that our families and our small businesses will no longer have to shoulder this dead weight.” That sounds well and good, but compare it to what President Bush said earlier in the evening: “To make our economy stronger and more productive, we must make health care more affordable, and give families greater access to good coverage . . . and more control over their health decisions.”

How did Reid explain his party’s apparent agreement with the president? “Unfortunately, much of what the president offered weren’t real answers.” Well, uh, what are the real answers then? This was the Democrats’ chance to tell us; we got nothing.

Pelosi, if you can believe it, did worse as far as presentation, though she offered more in the way of substance. She spoke disjointedly, and seemed the entire time to be trying (in vain) to repress a wide grin. But, thankfully, she led right into the meat of her speech on foreign policy and avoided pointless stories entirely.

Unlike Reid’s empty blathering on domestic policy issues, Pelosi offered plans and solutions: “Democrats believe a credible plan to bring our troops home and stabilizing Iraq must include three key elements . . . ,” etc. But, like Reid, she failed to differentiate the Democratic position from that of the president. Her three key elements are essentially the same thing Bush had said earlier, just on a shorter calendar.

Pelosi, however, did fairly criticize particular weaknesses in our homeland security protection—airline cargo, shipping containers, and railroads that go largely unsecured—and encouraged more U.S. involvement to stop genocide in the Sudan and to encourage middle east peace. Many of these statements were short on detail, but they are valid and worth noting as the strongest points in the response. However, it is also worth noting that I discovered these strong points while reading the transcripts today; it was virtually impossible to discern anything useful while listening to her monotonous speech last night.

All-in-all, this was a poor response that was extremely vague and terribly presented. Based on the content, I would guess that the speech was written long before President Bush ever stood up to the podium, yet it was apparent that neither Reid nor Pelosi had never seen (and surely never practiced) their speeches before giving them.

This was a missed opportunity for the Democratic party. What could have been a timely, powerful response to a strong State of the Union address ended up being little more than a stale, empty rehashing of a John Kerry campaign speech (with about as much substance and—believe it or not—a lot less charisma).

I tend to side with President Bush—you all know that—but I would really like to see the Democrats start putting some real effort and meat into their opposition. I value a good debate, and I respect (though generally disagree with) the views of the Democratic Party, but I’m tired of their opposition coming in the form of broad generalities and ‘Blame Dubya!’ Make a rational argument and back it up next time!