Belmont Club

Shape of the Union

The Christian Science Monitor describes the evolution of the State of the Union Address from its beginnings as a kind of status report to Congress to yet another event in the Permanent Campaign. “Officially, the annual State of the Union speech is for the president to address members of Congress, the representatives of the people.”

Now, in today’s restless, hypermedia age – in which the Internet and mobile devices enable viewers to snack their way through the news – his audience has gone virally global, increasing the strategic burden on the president but also expanding his opportunity to communicate with a vast and diverse “constituency.”

It is now an event at which, in the words of George Will, the President “tries to stroke every erogenous zone in electorate … If it’s going to be a pep rally, with the president’s supporters or whatever party standing up and braying approval, and histrionic pouting on the part of the other, then it’s no place for the judiciary, it’s no place for the uniformed military, and it’s no place for non-adolescent legislators.”

It’s certainly going to be a place from them — but in their political, not legislative capacity. Michelle Bachmann and Paul Ryan are going to deliver that Shadow State of the Union, the view from the other side(s).

“I think the real question is who’s really running the Republican Party?” Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said Tuesday. “I mean the fact is, we may find out tonight it’s the Tea Party.”

For persons of certain persuasion, “what is the political line” is always the primary question. There’s always supposed to be a man behind the curtain, someone fertilizing the astroturf, a central organ cranking out the talking points. Marsh is missing the point the Christian Science Monitor makes. With evolution of the State of the Union into a political event, expect more, not fewer responses.

It is possible to argue that even the Supreme Court has gotten into the act of delivering its own response. The WSJ reports that six of nine Justices are attending. Which six? “Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan are the likely sextuplet.” And who’s not going? Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

that six will be there will likely provide some comfort to Supreme Court watchers and scholars, some of whom had worried that only the four “liberal” justices — Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan — would show up.

Fortunately Chief Justice Roberts at least is there to carry the banner of “civil discourse”, simply because it has somehow become impolite not to listen to a speech that you could have read. Jeffrey Weiss argues that Americans “are hungry” for civil discourse. But one wonders what kind of civility is involved in a situation where a monologue has been scheduled and more than one response is sniffed at? The best way a monologue can be received without inviting incident is to return things to their original format and simply to publish the speech or record it for replay on television.

Otherwise the State of the Union speech will continue to change away from a report format; away from a monologue, first into an dialogue, then a trialogue and then a full-blown political circus. The Daily Telegraph remarked that politicians are having a hard time keeping a straight face for so long a time as it takes the President to read through his speech.

The State of the Union is one of the highlights of the year in Congress, but since Democrats mockingly applauded Ronald Reagan in 1983 it has been a highly partisan affair, with unflattering comparisons made to behaviour during debates in Britain’s parliament. …

Members of Congress from the Democratic and Republican parties will cross the aisle to sit next to each other for Tuesday’s State of the Union address by President Barack Obama, in a bid to foster a spirit of unity in the wake of the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But despite the noble sentiments of the occasion, some senior party figures have been barely able to conceal their contempt for the proposal. …

Senator Dick Durbin, the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, said he would sit with Mark Kirk, the other senator from Illinois.

“I’m bringing the popcorn. He’s bringing a Coke with two straws,” he joked.

It has become a spectacle in spite of itself. And maybe that’s how it should be. There is nothing so potentially funny as the spectacle of politicians trying to behave like statesmen. Things would be so much more natural if they could light up cigars and continue the proceedings with shot glasses of whiskey in hand. After all, the result of politics, and not the sound and fury that attends it, is what is ultimately of interest to the voters. Unless of course, we’ve reached the point where nothing further can be expected of politicians but entertainment.

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