Friday, September 03, 2004

jim wallis' thoughtful response to the president's speech...

i get the sojourners email and in it was an great article by jim... if you have not registered on their site yet, please do so now... this article is well worth the read...

Responding to President Bush's speech by Jim Wallis

After the scurrilous (one could say vicious) attacks on John Kerry by Republican convert Zell Miller at Wednesday night's Republican convention, and Dick Cheney's speech - in which he didn't seem to care about facts (no apologies for his certain claims about imminent threats from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), I really was hoping for something better from the president of the United States.

And it was better. The president spoke about many important issues - education reform and opportunity, health care security, job training, and support for low-income families and neighborhoods. I disagree with some of Bush's Democratic critics who found nothing new in the domestic portion of his speech. There are new and promising directions in his notion of "an ownership society," which focuses on things like tax credits, educational equality, and home ownership for lower-income families as an alternative to relying only on entitlement programs. In an interesting article in The New York Times magazine last Sunday, conservative writer David Brooks laid out a vision for "progressive Republicanism," which has a clear role for the positive action of government to make work actually work for low-income families through a range of wage supplements and wealth creation for poor working families. There were signs of such a vision in the Bush speech. I also appreciated the president's self-deprecating humor, which softened his image as a leader who is less than reflective and dismissive of mistakes and flaws.

But what the president failed to deal with was how his central domestic priority, "making permanent" his tax cuts that most benefit the wealthy, will simply not allow such positive government initiatives - because of a lack of resources. Nor did the president acknowledge or take any responsibility for the largest net job loss in any presidential administration since Herbert Hoover; the country's record deficits; the rise in the number of Americans living in poverty in each of the last three years (now one in eight of us); or the one million Americans who have lost their health care insurance each year he has been in office. As we have continued to say, poverty is a religious issue.

The Brooks vision will never be possible if Republicans stick to their characteristic anti-government ideology (present throughout the Republican Convention) and best summed up by Republican strategist Grover Norquist. He openly states the conservative goal of making government so small "it could be drowned in a bathtub." The Republicans have some serious internal debating to do.

But the visioning of new domestic possibilities was followed by yet another personal attack on John Kerry (as opposed to clear distinctions to his record), attacks that stained this whole convention. Honest comparisons between the candidate's policy proposals and records are, of course, valid in a political campaign, but the Republican Convention went over the top again and again (as Al Sharpton did at the Democratic Convention). The president's most offensive line in that regard was, "If you say the heart and soul of America is found in Hollywood, I'm afraid you are not the candidate of conservative values." Come on. I don't know anybody in America who believes that about Hollywood. And which convention was it that featured a Hollywood action hero as one of their rising stars? (And a parenthetical question I've puzzled over - has anybody heard the "family values" preachers of the Religious Right say anything critical of the notorious womanizer and body-builder?) Wouldn't it be better to see a serious campaign debate on important topics like whether the privatization of social security is a good or bad idea? Don't count on it.

But the heart and passion of President Bush's speech and of this Republican Convention throughout was a ringing defense of the administration's war on terrorism, especially in Iraq, and attacks on John Kerry as weak, indecisive, and unfit to command. The Republican Convention has laid down the gauntlet, bolstered by the "Swift Boat" attack ads on John Kerry's Vietnam record.

In the furious August debate on that topic, the press eventually began to scrutinize the accuracy of those attacks on Kerry's military service (after the damage had already been done), but mostly stayed away from the most controversial question about Vietnam - whether the war was fundamentally wrong and characterized by the regular commission of "war crimes." That's what the young and decorated naval officer John Kerry testified to Congress when he came home from the war. I was a young anti-war organizer then and say today - 30 years later - that it was the truth then, is still true now, and it was John Kerry's finest political hour.

But the country is still polarized over Vietnam and is again over another war. There is no disagreement in America about the need to protect our families, our nation, and the world against terrorism, and that this vicious and, yes, evil terrorist violence must be defeated. But whether that goal and our national security were advanced or whether they were seriously damaged by the war in Iraq is indeed the real and divisive question. Nobody was willing to "take the word of a madman" as the president caricatured his war opponents, but many of us, including most every major Christian body in the world, believed this "war of choice" to be unnecessary and unjust.

Even as an opponent of the war, I found the most moving part of the president's speech to be the stories of his times with military families who had lost their precious loved ones. Those losses are heartbreaking for all of us (as the loss of Iraqi lives should be too). But the most heart-wrenching question is whether they were tragically unnecessary, and whether the call to virtual permanent and pre-emptive war is the most effective and moral response to the real threat of terrorism.

President Bush's speech last night was summed up in the line, "You know what I believe and where I stand." Yes, we do. And that will be the issue when each of us walks into the polling place on November 2.

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