The Democrats responded to President Bush's prime time address with a duet: House Speaker Jim Wright and fellow Texan Lloyd Bentsen, last year's party nominee for vice president.
Wright opened by citing three "enormous" deficits: the budget deficit, the trade deficit and what he called the social deficit, the backlog of unmet American needs in education, industrial modernization, housing, education, environmental protection and drug abuse.The Democratic spokesman offered few concrete proposals on how his party believes these three deficits should be closed. Congress has mandated a reduction of $27 billion in the upcoming budget deficit, but Wright did not say where these savings are to be found. Except for criticizing "Star Wars," he failed to list a single area where government programs could be trimmed or eliminated.
Wright's only reference to budgetary savings was a thinly veiled attack on Bush's proposed "flexible freeze" on government spending. He said that he would "reject any kind of flexible freeze that would bend with flexibility for the rich and powerful but freeze out the middle class income families of America."
Wright was careful Thursday night not to mention the obvious alternative to big domestic program cuts: taxes.
Bentsen, speaking second, also skirted the tax issue. His remarks, which focused on national defense and tough law enforcement, seemed designed to correct the record of the 1988 presidential campaign that Democrats, and he personally, are weak in these areas.
Bentsen's remarks, which had the breadth and cadence of a campaign speech, were by far the evening's most polished performance. From the outset, he offered himself as a personal match-up to Bush, a man he defeated in 1970 to win his Senate seat.
The Texas senator scored a number of political points against the Republican administration. He condemned a breakdown of ethical standards, alluding to the long-lasting controversy involving former Attorney General Edwin Meese and the Wedtech corporation. He criticized the domination in the United States of massive foreign imports and described the lack of an "even playing field" in terms of overseas restrictions on U.S. goods.
But Bentsen saved his meatiest words to reestablish himself personally as a strong supporter of the military. He quoted the late Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington saying "the best politics" in foreign affairs "is no politics." He said that the defense build-up of the past decade was supported with Democratic votes.
Bentsen was equally tough on law and order. He said that criminals "can't hide behind smart lawyers." The Texas senator clearly wanted to leave no doubts that either he or the Democrats are captive to the soft-on-crime image Michael Dukakis projected during last year's campaign.