Domestic programs usually are the most progressive part of any president's State of the Union agenda, regardless of political affiliation or party. Government assistance to people in need and the use of government resources to address social ills are the kinds of expenditures that typically appeal to Democrats and liberal voters. But not President Bush's list. The president is pushing a set of fiercely ideological domestic priorities that play to his right-wing base. Nearly every initiative came with a twist that made it unpalatable to the other side of the aisle, which is why so many Democrats sat on their hands.
On drug use, Bush has called for $23-million to underwrite new drug testing programs in schools. He contended that school-based testing has reduced drug use and is a "tool to save children's lives." In fact, the largest government-funded study on the issue, which looked at 76,000 students across the country, found no difference in the rates of illicit drug use in schools that test for drugs and those that do not. Some in the field believe drug testing is harmful to students. The National Education Association has gone so far as to suggest that "for many adolescents, (drug testing) will interfere with more sound prevention and treatment processes."
Another initiative that will have little value beyond the political is Bush's call for doubling the money for federal abstinence-only programs in schools. Denying students information on safe sex and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases is an irresponsible and dangerous national policy. Encouraging abstinence has its place alongside comprehensive sex education, but the president's program prohibits any discussion of contraceptive use.
On the issue of prisoner programs, it was heartening to hear the president express concern for the 600,000 inmates who will be released from prison this year. He is right that released convicts are much more likely to land back in prison without job training, transitional housing and other services. His call for a $300-million Prisoner Re-Entry Program was a welcome acknowledgement of this. What was unwelcome was Bush's insistence that some of this money be directed toward faith-based groups that discriminate in hiring and promote an overtly religious agenda.
Since taking office, the president has actively tried to break down the wall between church and state by using his executive power to send public money to religious groups for faith-based social services. When Congress wouldn't go along out of constitutional concerns, Bush unilaterally opened nine offices of faith-based and community initiatives in the White House and various executive agencies and staffed them with people whose job is to encourage religious groups to apply for federal funds. In his State of the Union speech, he made clear this is still very much a priority.
Finally, Bush said what many Christian conservatives have been waiting to hear: He would support a constitutional amendment barring gays from marrying. After referring obliquely to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's recent decision declaring that homosexuals have a constitutional right to marry, Bush said, "If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage."
Between now and November, the president may try to downplay these polarizing views to appeal to the millions of moderate voters whose support will be crucial to his re-election. That certainly was his strategy during the 2000 campaign. But the State of the Union address, along with his consistent record over the past three years, is a more accurate reflection of his real priorities.