On the Political State of the Union


President Clinton's unbearably long but blessedly final State of the Union address provoked me to question whether the political state of our union is as strong as our economy. You be the judge.

Our Constitution, alas, no longer seems to be even a parchmentbarrier todemands by either party for additional federal powers. Last Thursday nightClinton spoke for more than an hour about issues for which the federalgovernment has no obvious constitutional authority -- education, healthcare, gun control and livable (liberal?) cities, for example. He conveyedan impression that he could have gone on indefinitely about those issues if,like Castro, he could command the attention of the increasingly restiveaudience. One wonders whether there is any dimension of our lives thatClinton regards as beyond his care and attention. Almost as anafterthought, he spoke only briefly about those few issues for which thefederal government has unquestioned constitutional authority --international trade, national security and foreign policy.

Our political system responds too quickly to demands for increasedspendingand a proliferation of programs but is slow to address the serious problemsof current programs and policies. A strong economy and the prospect oflarge budget surpluses provide the opportunity to address those problems.But Clinton backed away from his prior commitment to "save Social Securityfirst," and he ignored the more urgent problems of Medicare by proposing toadd coverage for prescription drugs. An increased federal role in educationhas not reversed the long decline in student performance in our publicschools, but Clinton refuses to consider even limited school voucherprograms. The federal tax code is extraordinarily complex and seriouslyconstrains economic growth, but Clinton proposed a few more special taxpreferences rather than a more thorough tax reform. Clinton's position oninternational trade is generally correct, even if contentious in his ownparty, but he bears substantial responsibility for the collapse of the tradenegotiations in Seattle. The armed forces face serious problems ofrecruitment and retention, despite a real total budget that is as high as itwas during many years of the Cold War. And recent U.S. foreign policy hasled to the worst relations with Russia and China since the end of the ColdWar and to an increased terrorist threat to the United States. But we heardnothing from Clinton about these problems or how they should be addressed.

The congressional Republicans do not promise to be of much help.Theydistinguished themselves primarily by sitting grumpily during most ofClinton's peroration on domestic policy.Their chosen respondents to Clinton's message never mentioned theconstitutional issues; the failure to address a major reform of SocialSecurity, Medicare or the tax code; and the administration's major foreignpolicy mistakes. Senator Collins promised to increase federal spending foreducation but to leave the authority with the same local officials who havepresided over the progressive decline in the quality of most public schools.Senator Frist endorsed Republican versions of prescription drug coverage anda patient's bill of rights, and he promised to save Medicare somehow byadding that program to the illusory Social Security lockbox. God saveAmerica from more such earnest blather.

Nor should we expect much help from the media. NBC, presumably inthe nameof balance, first asked for summary comments on the Clinton address fromBill Bradley, Robert Rubin and NBC's own Tim Russert -- as if the onlylegitimate debate is on the left. (I do not know, but I doubt whether theother networks were any better.) The next morning, the major newspapersfocused primarily on the political theater of the address and theimplications for the coming elections.

A president should be expected to do most of what he can get awaywith.And Clinton has pushed the limits. But where is the loyal opposition? Andwhere is the free press on which we are all dependent? I would be moreoptimistic about the State of the Union if our political system was not sucha mess.