GOOD BUSH, BAD BUSH. There were positives and negatives in President Bush's two main pronouncements at last night's news conference. Unfortunately, the pattern with Bush is for the positives to be strictly rhetorical, while the negatives actually get enacted as policy.
Bush's hour-long encounter with the press wasn't particularly newsworthy, so let me dispense with it in three observations:
1. He said the right thing about religion. Following last Sunday's Jesus-drenched satellite-television special on Bush's hard-right judicial nominees, the president was asked by NBC's David Gregory whether he agreed with the proposition that his choices were being filibustered because of their religious views. Bush's answer:
I think people are opposing my nominees because they don't like the judicial philosophy of the people I've nominated. Some would like to see judges legislate from the bench. That's not my view of the proper role of a judge....
The great thing about America, David, is that you should be allowed to worship any way you want, and if you choose not to worship, you're equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship. And if you choose to worship, you're equally American if you're a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim. That's the wonderful thing about our country, and that's the way it should be.
Bush's statement that secular people are "equally as patriotic" as those who are religious was significant, and it's not something he always remembers to say. Too often, Bush has allowed his presidency to be depicted as a right-wing religious crusade, which pumps up his base, but which has had the effect of intensifying the opposition as well.
Saying the right thing is important, because it sets a tone. Still, I'm not too impressed with the bone the president threw last night. That's because his answer, really, was an exercise in having it both ways - in letting the religious right do his dirty work for him, while he himself ever-so-slightly disagrees. As CNN's Jeff Greenfield put it last night, "he is once again the beneficiary of a base without tying himself to that base on this particular matter."
2. His statements on Social Security were a step forward. I'm not going to get carried away. Josh Marshall today is right to mock the "media swoon" with which Bush was greeted. But though Bush's embrace of "progressive indexing" is not new, his mentioning it in such a public forum shows that he's actually ready to do something he's never done with his tax cuts: help poor people by penalizing the wealthy.
That said, the full Robert Pozen plan that Bush seemed to endorse ought to be dead on arrival. Under it, your benefits will be cut if your "average career earnings" were $25,000 a year or more. That's absolutely ridiculous, and never mind that those earning up to $113,000 will be penalized even more.
Still, the notion that benefits should be judiciously cut without hurting those who most need is something that ought to be seriously considered. The late Paul Tsongas was talking about this back when he was a senator in the 1970s and '80s. Cutting benefits for the truly wealthy, as well as gradually raising the retirement age to 70, might not be a bad idea. (If anything, the modern equivalent of 65, the retirement age set in the 1930s, would be 75.)
Fortunately, the private retirement accounts Bush still wants to set up appear to be a political non-starter, and I'm not going to waste space on them except to say we should all have private retirement accounts, and that they're called IRAs and 401(k)s.
3. Give him an out and he'll duck the question. Not that that makes Bush unusual. By my tally, the worst question of the night was this one:
Mr. President, you've made No Child Left Behind a big part of your education agenda. The nation's largest teachers union has filed suit against it, saying it's woefully inadequately funded. What's your response to that? And do you think that No Child Left Behind is working?
The transcript doesn't indicate who asked this question, and I didn't recognize the reporter (Bush addressed him as "Richard"), but the flaw here is in the last sentence. Bush was directly asked about the lawsuit by the National Education Association and the accusation that NCLF has not been properly funded. But Richard couldn't leave well enough alone, closing with a general question that allowed Bush to puff NCLB and run out the clock. Bush:
Yes, I think it's working. And the reason why I think it's working is because we're measuring, and the measurement is showing progress toward teaching people how to read and write and add and subtract. Listen, the whole theory behind No Child Left Behind is this: if we're going to spend federal money, we expect the states to show us whether or not we're achieving simple objectives - like literacy, literacy in math, the ability to read and write. And, yes, we're making progress. And I can say that with certainty because we're measuring, Richard.
Etc., etc., etc.
Finally, after several minutes of this, the hapless Richard, no doubt having instantly realized that he'd fallen into a trap, interjected, "What about the lawsuit?" Bush claimed he didn't know about it. But by that point, Bush already appeared to have answered the NCLB question, and the moment was lost.
MORE ON THE NETWORKS. Jacques Steinberg, in today's New York Times, explains what was up with NBC and CBS last night. Frankly, I'd have more respect for them if they'd simply refused to carry the news conference. Cutting away with a few minutes to go was a no-class act.
OUR FRIENDS THE IRAQIS. I'm a day late with this, but if you missed it, you've got to read Thanassis Cambanis's account in yesterday's Boston Globe of Iraqi political figure Mithal al-Alusi. Alusi is a pro-Western secularist who would like to see better relations with Israel, and who has visited the Jewish state.
Alusi's reward: his two sons were killed in an assassination attempt aimed at him, he's been charged with treason for his trip to Israel, and he's been shunned by virtually the entire Iraqi political establishment.
This is what more than 1500 American troops have died for?