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A State of the Union, Without Rebuttal

Democrats have a few whopping-bad ideas that we inject from time-to-time into the political system. One of them, the “response” to the State of the Union address, initiated under King Richard of Nixon in 1966, really has to go. [1]

Since then we have had a minority party response at each SOU. We’ve even had the ridiculous non-party Tea Party response, courtesy of the television networks and their desire to pander to the Teahadis in 2010.

Once a year, the President of the United States is supposed to inform Congress as to his viewpoint of the state of the nation, and provide some big picture thinking about forward direction.

Per Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution:

“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” [2]

George Washington gave the first such address to Congress. Jefferson thought it too much like the King of England’s proclamations to Parliament and discontinued the practice of a speech, sending written notice instead. Woodrow Wilson revived the speech in 1913, then called the President’s Annual Message to Congress.  FDR renamed it the State of the Union (SOU) in the 1930s.  It wasn’t until 1966, though, that the other side, then the Democrats, decided to get into the act.

It is ironic that Republicans, who enjoy talking at nauseating length about returning to the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution, don’t seem to have a problem venting their spleen in the minority party rebuttals in clear violation of that intent.

There is a reason that the Founding Fathers didn’t write a minority party rebuttal into the presidential reporting formula.  It is not the purpose of the report/speech.

Debate between the parties about the merits of any policy or direction is a function of Congress. The President’s report to the Congress might have its merits debated, but not as part of the speech event.  The intent is for the union to hear from its principal leader.

Wisely, the framers well understood, just from the heated debates involved in establishing this nation, that someone needed to perform two critical functions:

  • Someone needed to be the top of the political and military chains of command to be able to make command decisions in times of war, and
  • That same someone needed to be able to be above the fray of the daily wrangling of the Congress at least once a year to provide big picture, forward-looking vision for the country.

Whether it is George W. Bush or Barack Obama, Nixon or Kennedy, we all know that there rarely is a union of vision as to what that forward direction of this nation will be.

The one thing that the State of the Union has done, whether it be under an Eisenhower or a JFK, is cause the most powerful person in the world to step back, and try and show us what that “big picture” of our future might be.

Inevitably, all Administrations, even George W. Bush’s, come up with an idea or two of merit. Bush’s AIDs initiative in Africa comes to mind as one of his positive contributions to mankind that found its way into a SOU speech.

Typically the evening is also a showcase of our patriotism.  There are great deeds, from our first responders at the World Trade Center, to the young man who tried to keep congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords from being shot, who are recognized for their contributions to the nation.

Woodrow Wilson was right to restore the speech. FDR understood that its national significance in the burgeoning age of mass media was as an amplifier of Teddy Roosevelt’s so-called “bully pulpit.”  The unwritten rule is that the speech has always been  to all Americans, not just to the partisan base of the person in the Oval Office. That singular, national stage for the leader of the nation is a perquisite of the job, be it Ford or Carter or Reagan or Clinton.

Mr. Obama has not abused that privilege. If anything, his prior speeches have been, to partisans of both the Left and Right, gratingly annoying paeans to centrism, justice for all, tolerance and to the revival of both the American work ethic and the American spirit.  This is not to say that Mr. Obama does not inject his personal and party bias into his speeches, as all presidents do.  That is his purview, though. It’s his report/analysis of the state of the Union to the Congress and the nation.

Partisan bickering is both commonplace and readily available from any watching, reading, or listening device, 24/7.  It is not as if we lack some channel for the two parties to discuss, ad nauseum, that forward direction.  We do not need a rebuttal from the minority party that immediately follows, no matter which party is in the minority.  The rebuttal diminishes America.

It started more as a filler for the missing items in the national agenda. The Democrats in the mid 1960s owned Capitol Hill.  The Nixon Democrats used the rebuttal time mostly to counterweight Nixon’s foreign policy-obsessed speeches, heavy in international big picture, with the advancement of everything from Civil Rights to the rights of Women in the workplace.  It wasn’t as if there was going to be a fight.  Nixon horse-traded social agenda for smooth running in his bargaining with Brezhnev.

Today, the rebuttal is more the province of publicity seekers, politicians trying to build up their mojo for a presidential bid, or take command of the Congressional dialogue.  It hasn’t helped the fortunes of those pulling down that gig, though.

  • Bobby Jindal had his presidential hopes dashed with a terrible rebuttal address.
  • Television granted the amazing exception of a pair of rebuttals in 2010, validating the ever dim bulb Michelle Bachmann’s ratings-grabbing rants on behalf of the non-party Tea Party. It gave her a weak run at the Oval.
  • Paul Ryan took his stab at trying to convince the American people why caring for each other by way of Medicare, Social Security and the new Health Care law was expensive, and it just had to go.  It wowed the 25-65 demographic of mustachioed villains who tie widows and orphans to railroad tracks, but didn’t register well with the average Joe, who had gone on to Dancing with the Stars on another channel after the first three words of his speech.

When we believe that all that we will see is another round of the same partisan bickering, Americans tune out.

That’s a shame, because some of what makes America great comes out of these speeches.  It is whatever president in power’s vision of where we need to go that shapes not only our political destiny, but our sense of ourselves.  Putting a man on the moon, defying totalitarianism, both Fascist and Communist, validating the rights of minorities, expanding the educational opportunity by taking college financing out of the for-profit world of banks, and many other notions, both Republican and Democratic have created that big picture intended to inspire our future.

The influence that it generates in real terms can seem transient. Everyone knows that, whatever a president says during a SOU speech, much of it will be ground to bits in the political sewers of Capitol Hill.  Still, the intent and the direction outlined in the speech usually make up the direction that the country will take, good or bad, for the rest of the year.

The State of the Union should be the time when the nation, along with the Congress, gathers to hear of our accomplishments, our challenges, and the vision for our future.

One of the primary reasons that the parties keep shrinking and the independent voting base grows is because we’ve become sick to death of the bickering.  The rebuttals only fuel that discontent, and keep us from gathering annually for that big-picture look at the nation.

On one night, let there be union, warts and all. Show the world that the house can stand together, if only for that one night.

The level of rancor, particularly since Mr. Obama took office, has become a freak show.   An evening free of “You Lie.” Free of partisan tit-for-tat.

Let us show a little respect for the Founding Fathers, and for the process.  The president, and the party in power for that year, has the floor on the night of the State of the Union.  If they fail to inspire us, if they fail to show leadership, and vision, we have a remedy for that problem every four years.

My shiny two.

About Brian Ross

Brian Ross is a writer, screenwriter, political satirist, documentarian and short filmmaker who blogs for Truth2Power, the Huffington Post, and the Daily KOS, among others.

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