Stasis in the State of the State

Texas Governor Perry gave his State of the State address yesterday. Our local NPR affiliate KUT included a couple quotes in its report that caught my attention, highlighting the difficulty people have converging on the same question in political rhetoric.

The Democratic response given by State Senator Kirk Watson directly addresses a key assumption in Perry’s argument and offers a productive question for further discussion. Perry suggested cutting taxes “after we’ve funded our services and met the needs of our ever expanding population.” Watson points out that the definition of those “needs” are not universally agreed upon, asking for “honesty in the budgeting process about what those real needs are.”

However, on a second point Watson’s response potentially disrupts a productive argument wherein all viewpoints would debate TX state capitol building entrance with statue in front financial policy (as opposed to other issues). Watson criticized Perry’s refusal to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid, saying that “almost because of just disliking who might have won an election, we’re not going to focus on something that will make citizens of this state healthier and make our economy healthier.”

Watson’s attribution of spite as motive for Republican refusal to expand Medicaid can easily derail further discussion. Republicans have substantive reasons for refusing the accept the federal funds. Perry calls the system “unsustainable,” and expanding social safety net programs conflicts with the general conservative movement away from such programs. Watson may disagree with these reasons, but they are reasons that could address the question of what programs deserve funding—much like Watson asks us to debate what we mean by the term “needs.” Instead, Watson attributes Perry’s resistance to retaliation, which moves the discussion away from policy matters.

Of course, an opposing party’s response to a State of the State address is a political speech (no less so than the State of the State speech itself), so Watson’s attack on motives does serve some useful rhetorical goals, such as stoking enthusiasm among Democrats and attempting to cast Perry and his allies as petty pols unfit for statecraft. The question is whether the benefits achieved in seeking those goals outweigh the costs of provoking a rancorous exchange on “who’s the bigger jerk?”

Image Credit: Kumar Appaiah

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About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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