I knew before I flicked on CNN Tuesday night that I wasn’t going to find that much to like in President Bush’s State of the Union address. Bush is fond of talking about evil; I happen to think there’d be less evil in the world if Dubya had never stopped drinking and was fading away from cirrhosis at the end of a dirt road in Texas right about now.

Sarah Royce

But more than his nonsense statement that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would actually leave Osama bin Laden in control of the country, more than the contrast between his incoherent claim that “no one can out-produce or out-compete the American worker” and the slow death facing Detroit’s automakers, what bothered me most in his speech was one stupid little line. Bush begged Congress to pass medical tort reform, “because lawsuits are driving many good doctors out of practice – leaving women in nearly 1,500 American counties without a single OB/GYN.”

We’ve all heard about the high premiums OB/GYNs pay for malpractice insurance. So Bush’s statement makes perfect sense – it’s the evil trial lawyers’ fault that the 774 residents of Logan County, Nebraska probably don’t have their own obstetrician. Same goes for their 729 neighbors just to the north in Thomas County. It couldn’t possibly be the case that most of those 1,500 counties Bush cited don’t have OB/GYNs because they’re in lightly populated rural areas. Why, what with Nebraska’s birth rate – which is slightly higher than the national average, mind you – there are around 11 babies born each year in Thomas County. Almost one a month! Plenty of business, if only we could get those darn malpractice awards under control.

Folks who have learned not to trust anything Bush says anymore doubtlessly caught his intellectual dishonesty on that point without any help. But I’d wager that most members of the Facebook group “George W. Bush Is My President, You Whiny Liberal!” didn’t register anything on their bullshit detectors.

That’s not to say Democrats aren’t prone to saying idiotic things either. Campaigning for the Democratic nomination in 2004, then-Senator John Edwards said he didn’t vote for NAFTA – a completely true statement, if only because he wasn’t in Congress at the time.

So much of our political discourse is based in blind partisanship and base appeals to emotion that such stupendous distortions are par for the course. I suppose a politician could win some supporters to his side by engaging their intellects and leading them to conclude he’s the best candidate. But it’s so much easier – and more effective – to appeal to voters’ predjudices and fears than their reason.

Besides, building up reasonable arguments to support a position rather than simply implying your political enemies are in bed with terrorists or oil executives – well, that would just be too intellectual a level of discourse. Paul Begala, his standing at CNN cut from co-host of Crossfire to guest on Anderson Cooper’s show, even argued after Bush’s speech that the president was acting too smart for his own good:

“I think one of the ways he failed is that he’s fallen into Washington jargon, which is surprising, because he did have this wonderful way of talking like a real person, a Texan. He talked about competitiveness. What is that? You know, people sitting at home just want to find a way to pay for their kids’ college costs. . The president talked about isolationism, whatever that is, protectionism. These are Washington buzzwords.”

Begala’s right. As a regular Beltway insider – I went to Washington on a class trip in 5th grade, and I’ve been back to protest maybe three times since – I was pleased that Bush spoke a language only those of us in the elite could understand. At the very least, members of Congress probably appreciated that the same guy presenting them with a legislative agenda also talked to them like grown-ups. But the rest of the unwashed masses? Begala, a former political advisor to President Clinton who presumably understands how to sell a message, thinks Bush’s language “was very distant and out of touch with the real lives of real people.”

You can absorb all the Enlightenment thought you like and read Locke or Jefferson till your eyes bulge out. What democracy comes down to in this electronic age, though, seems to be an unintellectual president making an unintellectual speech – and still arguably overshooting the electorate’s standards for political discourse. “The best argument against democracy,” Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The old Brit might have been on to something.

Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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