There’s no doubt that politicians, parties and pundits in this town can make one of Washington’s oldest traditions a partisan affair, but being at the State of the Union this year provided an excellent viewpoint to see exactly how far that can go.
The takeaway? Nothing is sacred.
Take, for example, the common-sense idea that responses to the speech should come after the speech. Sitting at home, we might think members of Congress watch the President Barack Obama’s address, collect their thoughts and then provide interviews and electronic statements to the press.
But in the lead up to the speech, it was no secret that members – or their staffs – had already started pumping out “responses” – without even knowing what the president was about to say. Issued under embargo, on the condition that media wouldn’t report them until later in the evening, they ignored what the president had to say and stuck to predetermined talking points.
Of course, maybe it didn’t matter whether the responses came before or after the address anyway. That would matter only if you assume members of Congress listen to and care about what the president has to say.
Watching from the press gallery, it was easy to tell that for many representatives and senators, listening to the speech was secondary to playing up their partisan bona fides. There were those on the Democratic side of the aisle who were determined to stand, applaud, hoot and holler for what seemed to be every other sentence the president said. And there were some on the other side of the aisle slouched in their seats, applauding only for mentions of the military, or if everyone else did.
And yet, if listening to the speech wasn’t important, maybe that’s because what the president had to say isn’t going to matter very much in the long term.
There’s an argument to be made the speech itself was just another chance to score political points – this year as an appeal to Obama’s base – not an offer to compromise on big issues the country faces. He doubled down on veto threats and proposed expanding government in areas such as higher education, medicine and child care. He laid out a plan to increase taxes on the super wealthy and cut taxes for the middle class.
The left-of-center policies he spent much of the night pushing made it seem as if the midterms never happened.
After the speech, everyone went out to fill their assigned rolls. Members of Congress stuck to their talking points in Statuary Hall, partisan commentators went on TV to push their side’s narrative and leaders talked about their hope for what’s become the great theory of bipartisanship.
And we’ll all do it again next year.