That meter, the State of the Union

Many American free marketeers and business types are disillusioned with both parties. They don't like the Democratic establishment because the Democrats are for government activism; they don't like the Republican establishment because the Republicans aren't much better.

They tend, therefore, either to bust out and vote for mavericks such as Ross Perot or John McCain or to grit their teeth and pull the lever beside the Republican name.

This, they justify as an example of following medicine's "first do no harm" principle. In general, they tell themselves, the Republicans are probably but not certainly--likely to be less bad.

This week's State of the Union address turns out to provide a wonderful confirmation for the "first do no harm" theorists. Here the country was, in wartime mode, with every excuse to do that sort of damaging expansion of the state that markets fear. Being a good Republican though, Mr Bush held back somewhat; his proposals are expansive, but not as bad as they could have been.

That crucial difference has been parsed for us by the Cato Institute, a free market Washington think tank. Cato experts combed the record of this and past State of the Unions, and found that President Bush proposed a total of 39 new initiatives, only one more than he did last year, when the nation was still in tax-cut peace time mode. Contrast this with President Clinton who was, as internationalists like to recall, not a "left" Democrat or a centrist one. In his last two States of the Union, Mr Clinton proposed 95 and 104 new initiatives for the years 1999 and 2000 respectively.

Another way to calculate the damage, as Cato points out, is by the sheer length of the speech. (This on the theory that says: the longer they talk, the more damage they do). Mr Bush spoke for 48 minutes, a minute shorter than he did last year, and less than half the 104 minutes Mr Clinton spoke in 2000. This is more than proof that Mr Clinton recognised the value of exploiting Theodore Roosevelt's Bully Pulpit. It is evidence, free marketeers would say, that Democrats simply believe the government ought to be more important in people's lives.

But you don't have to contrast Mr Bush with Mr Clinton; Tom Daschle, the Senate Majority leader, was right there with his rebuttal to provide a living example of Democratic activism. "Mr Daschle talked a lot about need", notes Chris Edwards of Cato. "He said 'Our nation has urgent needs on all fronts,' and he wasn't just talking about national security. He said we 'need to ... renew our commitment to training and lifelong learning.'" Mr Daschle, Mr Edwards notes, uttered the telling phrase "we should" a full sixteen times, summoning the collective to act. And so on.

None of this is to say that the Republican speech was perfect in terms of markets; the area most in danger of seeing public sector expansion in the US is health care, and Mr Bush threw flame on that fire when he talked about expanded insurance benefits.

Still, as a microcosm of why people vote the way they do and what they get for it, you won't find a neater example than Tuesday evening.

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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