Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address. Shortly after, as is tradition for the party that doesn’t control the executive branch, the Republicans issued their response to Obama’s speech, selecting Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to address the American people.
In most years, after these two speeches happen, both major political parties rest their cases, and the political pundits of news networks start their analyses. However, this year is different because someone apparently asked the Tea Party folks to weigh in on Obama’s speech too. Who asked for their opinion? Not the GOP. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said sternly that “Paul Ryan’s giving the official Republican response.”
The speaker for the Tea Party was Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), who seemed to be distracted by something off-camera during her address. However, her policies were even more off. In her remarks, she talked about how Obama needs to “stop the EPA from imposing a job-destroying cap-and-trade system.” The extent to which the GOP has flipped-flopped on this issue is amazing. If you can remember back just two years ago to the 2008 presidential election, the McCain-Palin ticket said explicitly that cap-and-trade was a “market-based system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.” In other words, cap-and-trade is a conservative solution to environmental problems. Again, in their words, “it allows the market to decide and encourage the lowest-cost compliance options.” Bachmann slammed the GOP presidential ticket’s environmental policy. Of course, Obama now wants to implement something similar to it, which some people think makes it “socialist.”
Bachmann also spoke about repealing Obama’s health care legislation “and allowing all Americans to buy any health care policy they like anywhere in the United States.” Except, of course, no insurance company will take you up if you’re sick and need help desperately. She also said the United States is “a nation that currently enjoys the world’s finest health care” and that she believes in “exceptionalism in America.” Let’s put aside the American exceptionalism and look at the “finest” health care system with statistics. The World Health Organization ranked the American health care system 37th in the world in 2000 (they have stopped ranking since then because of the complexity of the task). The New England Journal of Medicine reported that in 2006, “the United States was number one in terms of health care spending per capita but ranked 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality and 36th for life expectancy.” Based on these numbers, it seems that the United States is only good at spending money.
However, the point that caught my attention was Bachmann’s remark about “exceptionalism in America,” which seems to be a litmus test nowadays if you want to be a Republican. In order to be conservative, you have to gush about America’s greatness at every opportunity. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has blasted Obama many times about how he is always “apologizing for America.” In other words, America is so exceptional that there is nothing it has done that deserves an apology. Really? Go tell that to Native Americans, African Americans, Muslims, the Japanese and the Chinese. Since when did apologizing become a sign of weakness?
I’m not saying that Americans should be ashamed of where they come from and what they do. However, being excessively proud of things that you have no business being proud of is just stupid. More importantly, it hinders progress where it is needed. When Bachmann says our health care system is the greatest in the world — and many GOP leaders echo this sentiment — it clouds the debate over what actually needs to be done to improve the health care industry. In addition, leaders of other countries are angry with our exceptionalism rhetoric because it often carries a religious undertone with it — “God bless America”— and implies that America doesn’t have anything to learn from other countries. This is precisely the wrong approach to improving this great country of ours. The patriotic thing to do is to take what other countries are doing well and adapt their ideas to improve America.
Bachmann and the Tea Party were off-kilter with the camera on Tuesday. Too bad that’s not all that was wrong with their State of the Union response.
Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.