Hypocrites' Oath

The closing “God bless America, and good night” of George W. Bush's State of the Union address this week will signal not just the official ending of his speech but also the end of the debate surrounding Bush's last major pronouncement, his second inaugural address.

Before we consign the inaugural address to the anthologies and history books, look back for a moment not at the address itself but at the debate it sparked. Two things become clear: When it comes to foreign policy, the right is divided, and the left is directionless. There is vigorous debate about the very essence of what America's role in the world should be post-September 11 on one side of the ideological divide, while the other contents itself with sniping at the margins. If Democrats ever hope to succeed in their long trek out of the wilderness and back to power, they must get off the sidelines and engage on this issue.

Bush's second inaugural address is now known as the “freedom speech.” In ringing pronouncements, Bush said the United States will “seek and support the growth of democracy movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.” To those living in despotic regimes, Bush said, “The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand for you.” This new Bush doctrine was Wilsonianism on steroids, and the implications of what this new policy would mean provoked an interesting response from the right.

Joseph Bottum, writing in The Weekly Standard, claimed victory for the “theocons” -- who, in the words of Jacob Heilbrun (who coined the moniker), believe that “the United States is first and foremost a Christian nation, governed ultimately by natural law.” Bottum crowed that with Bush's invocation of God as the granter of liberty to all people and the source of their right to freedom, the president “delivered a foreign-policy discourse that relies entirely on classical concepts of natural law.”

Neoconservatives, who believe that the battle against totalitarianism -- whether fascist, communist, or Islamicist -- must be joined, also applauded the speech, arguing, as Joshua Muravchik put it, that “America can serve as an agent of its advancement, as it has done all over the world, and that democracy's spread will make the world safer.” While they differ, at times strenuously, with the theocons about the rationale behind the advocacy of democracy and liberty, neocons embraced this aggressive posture toward tyranny.

As these two schools of thought embraced Bush, a group of prominent Republicans reacted to the speech with varying degrees of horror. To them, Bush's grandiose claims bordered on naïvete, or even utopianism; the president needed a cold dose of reality. “Evangelical democracy writ overwhelmingly large -- is the manic idea for which the army must fight,” wrote Mark Helprin in The Wall Street Journal. Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, weighed in that the “the United States needs a foreign policy that deals with the world as it is.” And in Newsweek , George Will warned that “[p]residents, especially those emboldened by re-election, should be wary of overreaching.”

The battle over the Bush speech got so intense so quickly that the administration itself tried to walk back the speech, even sending George Bush Senior out to explain his son's intent to the White House press corps. To be sure, this attempt to bottle up a speech as planned and vetted as an inaugural address demonstrates either total incompetence or a genuine shock that the administration had to the reaction to the address.

Yet, sadly, the White House did not have to take this unusual step because of the sustained criticism of those on the center-left. Indeed, these voices were relatively quiescent. Not to say that they did not weigh in on the speech, but while those on the right side of the political spectrum argued the very principles and aims of American foreign policy, the response from the other side could be summed up in one word: hypocrisy.

For example, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation wrote in the Financial Times that “under Mr. Bush, the US hypocritically uses the promotion of democracy as the rationale for campaigns against states it opposes for strategic reasons.” The New Republic turned to Freedom House ratings to detail the difference between what Bush says and does on democracy. And this week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, tasked to deliver the foreign-policy “prebuttal” to Bush's State of the Union address, did a whole riff on the “gap between this president's words and his deeds,” from the promotion of democracy to multilateralism and Iraq.

Pointing out the “rhetoric versus reality” of a politician's statements or actions is a staple of Democratic campaigning and the war-room mentality. But shining a light on hypocrisy is a tactic, not an idea. It's an argument against intellectual dishonesty, not an argument about the policies put forward -- or the philosophies underpinning those policies. Charging hypocrisy may work in a faculty club or debating society, but it neither provides a critique of the problems with or pitfalls of a particular outlook nor offers a compelling alternative.

In many ways, the center-left's cry of hypocrisy these past few weeks is a cry for help. Democrats need to come to grips with how the attacks of September 11 changed the world and our politics. The threat is real, and is felt by Americans. Sniping at the edges of this debate is not good enough. Democrats need to get back to basics, identify their core beliefs, and enter the debate with a coherent argument about what they see as America's role in the world. Until they do, the intellectual thunder will continue to be on the right, and Republicans will continue delivering inaugural addresses.

Kenneth S. Baer, former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.