Political commotion does cleanse old cosmetics from the pores of the body politic. The commotion caused by the Gramm-Rudman deficit-eraser scrubbed the glittering promises from the State of the Union address.
Well, yes, there was the shimmering vision of a "new Orient Express," a rocket that will haul passengers from Washington to Tokyo in two hours, thereby pioneering the trans-Pacific flight shorter than the wait for luggage at the end of it. But Gramm-Rudman, which soon may shrink government, already has shrunk the State of the Union address, for which a grateful nation gives thanks.
The traditional State of the Union is a list of things the government must do to make this a land fit for heroes. But in a city that has been looking up warily at the glinting blade of the Gramm-Rudman guillotine, all questions concern what the government will soon quit doing.
Successful politics often involves creative use of the post-hoc, ergo propter-hoc fallacy: The rooster crows and then the sun rises, so the crowing caused the sunrise. Did you hear a sly suggestion that the three-year rise in SAT scores not only coincides with the Reagan administration, the administration actually. . . . The president did stop short of attributing the rise in test scores to the decline in marginal tax rates, for which restraint all Americans offer additional thanks.
Government is a spending mechanism, so, in Gramm- Rudmanized government, talk turns to things other than government, such as "values," get 'em while they're hot. President Reagan is suited by aptitude and temperament to be head of a Gramm-Rudmanized government. He seems content to conduct a tone-setting presidency, telling people to behave well -- avoid pornography and do not throw rolls in the school cafeteria.
His address was another episode in the ongoing intramural contest the two parties are waging for custody of "traditional" values. Hence, the Cuomoization of American political rhetoric.
New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo believes in working a pedal on the organ until the pedal cries out for mercy. He cannot, or at any rate will not, say "Please pass the mustard" without adding a warm reference to the family. Reagan, going for the gold and for Cuomo's Olympic rhetoric record, used the word "family" 16 times in 48 paragraphs. Maple syrup is nice, but why drink a tumbler of it? Have the president's writers heard the phrase "sickening sweet"? Enough already.
But on television the next morning there was Delaware's former governor Pete du Pont giving us more. He has his eye on Reagan's chair and his ear to the ground (that's not easy; try it). He said hurray for Reagan because Reagan spoke about "family values not federal values." Think about that. On second t, don't. Du Pont probably didn't.
The Democratic Party is a slow learner, but, judging from its so-called "response" to the president's speech, it is making up with ardor for what it has lacked in alacrity. Of course the response was not really a response.
The Democratic Party is well supplied with the sort of social improvers who are eager to protect the endangered consumer from, say, a misleadingly labeled can of peaches. But the party unblushingly serves up canned goods as a "response" to the president. This year's response featured a lot of filmed segments using symbols -- even the Liberty Bell made a cameo appearance -- to praise values.
Paul Kirk, the Democrats' chairman, says the difference between the parties is "a question of values." Glad to have that cleared up.
Some of the Democrats' filmed segments were shot in "Miller-Time" orange, but the family farmers and other value-laden people shown were too busy praying (for relief from Reagan, presumably) to have time for dissipations such as beer-drinking. Various Democrats praised the making of "tough choices," much as Gary Hart used to speak highly of "new ideas." The Democrats did not get around to making any of those choices, but first things first. First (they have been studying the president) comes a plunge into a tub of warm values.
It is pleasant to hear a president and the loyal if alarmed opposition talking about something other than their usual subject, which concerns their own indispensability. Of course these flurries of symbols and values melt into the country like snowdrifts on riverbanks, leaving anyone who remembers the speech and the response trying to remember which was which. As Talleyrand said when asked about Robespierre and Voltaire, "When I think of one, I prefer the other."