CAMPAIGN CONFIDENTIAL

By E.J. Kessler

Published February 03, 2006, issue of February 03, 2006.
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Worries among Jewish groups that President Bush would use his State of the Union speech to unveil a new push for faith-based funding or any other efforts to lower the church-state wall proved unfounded.

In his address Tuesday night, Bush pressed a laundry list of domestic initiatives that widely are being described as small in scale, defended the American effort in Iraq and his policy of promoting democracy across the world, and pledged to wean the United States off of oil exports from the Middle East. He also addressed the recent victory of the Islamic terrorist group Hamas in the recent Palestinian legislative elections.

Before the speech, Jewish organizational officials based in Washington were voicing concern that Bush was set to launch what they feared would be an attempt to lower the wall separating church and state on several fronts. For example, speaking before the president’s speech, Michael Lieberman, general counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, said that his organization and other Jewish groups were worried that Bush would try to expand the hurricane-relief measure of providing federal funds this year to all schools, including sectarian ones, that take in displaced students.

Lieberman also said he thought it possible that Bush would call for the ratification of his faith-based initiative by Congress. “We’re still against it,” citing what he said was a lack of “necessary constitutional safeguards” in Bush’s approach to permitting religious organizations to obtain federal funds for performing social services. To date, the president has not signed any law authorizing his faith-based initiative, instead doling out faith-based money using his power to issue executive orders.

Bush ended up stressing the need for a national response to globalization.

“The American economy is pre-eminent — but we cannot afford to be complacent,” he said, proposing a hike in federal expenditures on basic science, a research and development tax credit, and an initiative to encourage children to take more math and science. “In a dynamic world economy, we are seeing new competitors like China and India.”

The president, a former Texas oilman, gave some ground on the pro-consumption energy policies of his administration, advocating proposals to decrease American dependence on foreign oil, a notion favored by many Jewish organizations on the grounds that it would weaken the influence of Israel’s and America’s Islamic enemies.

“America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world,” Bush said. “The best way to break this addiction is through technology.” The proposals — including hydrogen-fueled cars, clean coal, more nuclear power and renewable sources such as ethanol — had a familiar sound: They echoed nostrums found in earlier Bush speeches and the platforms of most of the Democrats who ran for president in 2004, including Senator John Kerry.

As he has on the stump recently, Bush acknowledged that the United States “has learned from experience in Iraq.” He also said that he had “benefited from responsible criticism and counsel offered by members of Congress of both parties” and would continue to reach out and seek such advice.

But he took a swipe at administration opponents, saying “there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.”

Democrats bristled at the suggestion that their criticism was not constructive and faulted Bush for his lack of specificity in his report on Iraq.

“Rather than pointing fingers at Democrats, the administration should explain to the American people why two reports in the past weeks have said our military has been strained by the administration’s policies, that 80% of the Marine casualties in Iraq could have been avoided if the administration had supplied the right body armor, why Iran is gathering strength as a nuclear power has been bogged down in Iraq,” said Rep. Steve Israel, a Long Island congressman tasked by his party to reach out to the Jewish community.

Some Democrats went further and panned the whole speech.

“Anyone looking for proof that this is a White House bereft of new ideas need look no further than tonight’s speech,” Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer said. “Whether it’s lauding hydrogen cars or promoting health savings accounts, the centerpieces of this speech are all initiatives that the president has spoken about in the past. Either they’ve already been bungled or even the president’s friends in the Republican Congress could not be sold on them.”

The new governor of Virginia, Timothy Kaine, in the official Democratic response to the address, said: “Tonight, we heard the president again call to make his tax policies permanent, despite his administration’s failure to manage our staggering national debt. Over the past five years, we’ve gone from huge surpluses to massive deficits. No parent makes their child pay the mortgage. Why should we allow this administration to pass down the bill for its reckless spending to our children and grandchildren?”

Reaction to Bush’s proposals was mixed in the Jewish community. On the Web site of liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the RAC’s legislative director, Barbara Weinstein, blogged about the event as it unfolded. She appeared a bit skeptical about Bush’s comments.

“The Iraqi constitution guarantees health care — interesting that 46 million Americans don’t have coverage,” she wrote at 9:30 p.m. The next minute she added, “The president didn’t mention how the United States plans to react to Hamas’s election. Only how Hamas must act.”

But William Daroff, the chief Washington lobbyist for United Jewish Communities, the roof body of the 168 Jewish federations, welcomed one of Bush’s social-service initiatives: the creation of a bipartisan commission to examine the effect of Baby Boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Daroff also praised Bush health savings accounts as “an excellent incentive for middle and upper income Americans to plan for their savings,” although he added that any longtime healthcare solution “needs to be comprehensive and deal with folks throughout the income strata.”

Daroff, formerly a top GOP operative, said that whatever the merits of the president’s healthcare proposals, the fact that he’s willing to advance them is salutary: “The president putting [those ideas] front and center will help crystallize the debate on those issues, and that’s a good thing.”






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