When the most memorable moment of the Capitol’s State of the Union evening involves rising Republican star Marco Rubio lunging for a water bottle, it’s a sure sign this tradition is badly in need of rethinking.
Florida’s freshman senator was not even the featured attraction. Rubio was delivering the Republican rebuttal to the main event, President Barack Obama’s second nationally televised ceremonial address in less than a month, the first being his inspiring inaugural address.
Rubio’s theme: Big government is bad. He was not alone in rebutting the president. Kentucky GOP freshman Sen. Rand Paul rebutted on behalf of the tea party movement.
By that time, the honest citizens of the Eastern Time zone were headed off to bed. In the West, they were undoubtedly watching the aftermath of the successful manhunt in California that led to the presumed death of loopy left cop-killer Christopher Dorner in a burning cabin.
The State of the Union has developed the annoying ritual of the president’s party standing and wildly cheering at each applause point while the other party sits grim-faced and arms folded. The Republicans cheer anything that sounds like a tax cut. Everybody cheers for the troops, whom the president committed to bring home from Afghanistan in substantial numbers. Sadly, Congress was cheering even though we have not won that war, and at this point, are extremely unlikely to. That’s not quite the same thing as cheering for losing a war, but it’s close.
The president called for broad, and largely unspecified (as usual for him), attacks on the deficit and income inequality and programs to boost the middle class (even as Obamacare and other tax increases are putting the squeeze on that class).
He again called for: immigration reform, which he may get; action on climate change, which he likely won’t, and shouldn’t; and restri ctions on gun ownership, most of which aren’t likely to go anywhere.
State of the Union addresses never change the other party’s collective mind. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who welcomed Obama to Washington by saying the Republicans’ top priority was to make him a one-term president, dismissed the speech as “liberal boilerplate” filled with “gimmicks.” True enough — and true as well of nearly every SOU speech we can recall from recent decades, except for the ones that were filled with conservative boilerplate and gimmicks.
The Constitution says the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union” and shall recommend such measures as he deems “necessary and expedient.” How and when this is done is up to the president. From Thomas Jefferson up to the age of TV and radio, this was most often done by written report, sometimes read aloud to Congress by a lower-level functionary and sometimes not read aloud at all.
As formulaic and ineffective as the State of the Union speech has become, it now serves a new and useful role: In an increasingly polarized Congress, it is one of the few times all the members gather together to be reminded of their common purpose.
Too bad that reminder is so swiftly forgotten.