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Bottom line: Defense gets a billion a day

In an analysis following President Bush’s State of the Union speech Jan. 28, one of the TV talking heads suggested that Bush had given two speeches, a kind of perfunctory, please everyone domestic issues speech and another, more passionate, all-but-a-declaration-of-war speech.

On paper, the two sides of the speech easily separate, but in the real world they are inextricably bound by considerations of money and national purpose.

If his speech is any gauge, then in terms of resources, passion and presidential eloquence, very nearly all of our national purpose is being poured into the container of war against Iraq.

By the time any war is over, increasingly large chunks of the national treasury will be drained into the same container.

Whatever words are used to persuade Americans on issues of tax cuts, health care, hydrogen powered cars, faith-based initiatives or homeland security, they must be measured against the Bush ambition of spending more than $396 billion for the military in the current fiscal year. That’s more than a billion dollars a day. It’s more than six times the spending rate of Russia, the next largest defense spender, according to the Center for Defense Information. By such measures, the United States, more than anything else, is prepared to make war.

Those figures, it must be noted, represent what will be fed into military coffers before what appears a likely war in Iraq.

On the chance that there is no war and attention again returns to home, we will be confronted more starkly than during wartime with that question of national purpose.

In addition to the enormous drain on resources that will go to the Pentagon, Bush is advocating a $700 billion tax cut. Most Washington observers see the tax cut as a nonstarter, since Democrats have already targeted it as an example that the administration has eyes only for the rich, and even some highly placed congressional Republicans have been openly skeptical.

Further, budget builders in Washington once again have to figure on a deficit (it’s baaaack) and paying interest on the national debt that a deficit feeds.

Who’s had time to catch a breath much less get a fix on how we went from $127 billion in surpluses in 2001 to an estimated $199 billion shortfall this fiscal year, according to latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

While much of the first part of Bush’s speech sounded like an unconvincing laundry list of wishes and quick takes on complicated matters, the section on providing an additional $10 billion over the next five years to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean came across as a heartfelt, compassionate initiative. And one long overdue.

The rest of the list raised more questions than it provided answers. Implicit in the quick hits on prescription drugs, additional access to health care, environmental initiatives regarding forests and even the small amount of funding for research on hydrogen-powered cars was this president’s deeply held belief that most problems are better handled by the private sector and that the greatest good that government can achieve is promoting entrepreneurial interests.

It has been correctly observed elsewhere that the current administration represents a roaring return of the Reagan revolution that caused such memorable jolts throughout the banking and financial communities during the 1980s.

What is even more disturbing is that the domestic agenda now comes at us as so many inducements thrown into a crowd. It would have been more reassuring, perhaps, or at least understandable, if the president had articulated a vision of government out of which his plan emerges. What is its purpose beyond going the limit to maintain wealthy interests and increasingly abdicating federal authority and responsibility to private interests?

If this administration, in some of its particulars, is reminiscent of the Reagan era, it also is notable for a deficiency that was apparent in yet another earlier administration. If the most recent assessment of the state of the union is any indication, the younger Bush, too, lacks “the vision thing.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003