Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Madame Speaker Says NO to SOTU

The State of the Union message is a constitutionally mandated obligation of the President to report to Congress (intended by the Constitution to be the pre-eminent and more representative branch).  The Constitution's Article 2, Section 3, commands that the President “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The message is a mandate. The address is  not. The address - an American version of a royal Speech from the The Throne - goes all the way back to George Washington, but was subsequently discontinued by Thomas Jefferson, finally being revived again a little more than a century ago by Woodrow Wilson. Its inherently monarchical style invests our (stylistically at least) republican government with welcome dignity and gravitas, however much the applauding and jumping up and down on cue may detract from that dignity. And, in the hands of an effective communicator who appreciates the symbolic power and resonance of the occasion, it can be a formidable political tool.

Whether for the State of the Union or any other comparable occasion, however, when the President comes to Congress to address the elected representatives of the American people, he comes at their invitation - an invitation freely extended by the Speaker and, apparently, withdrawn by the present Speaker in the context of the current partial government shutdown. Indeed, would not the pomp and pageantry of a State of the Union seem somewhat incongruous with so many departments of the federal government incapacitated and so many of those charged to guarantee the event's safety and security scandalously unpaid?

The media has done a credible job of highlighting the pain of so many workers and contractors whose day-to-day livelihoods and long-term prospects have been jeopardized by the Trump shutdown. It has been somewhat less effective, perhaps, at highlighting the wider social damage the Trump shutdown is doing and at creating a corresponding sense of urgency about resolving it. Skipping the SOTU show may help to accomplish both. The President may not appreciate the meaning of missing a paycheck in the life of a TSA agent or a member of the Coast Guard or anyone else who can't just ask one's father for a million-dollar loan. But he appreciates TV and surely knows what he would be missing. 

Of course, he can find other options to speak his message, but any alternative would inevitably lack not only the regal pretense but the unifying, ostensibly non-partisan pretense which is integral to the State of the Union's efficacy as well as its charm.

Personally, I like ritual and ceremony. As a citizen, I appreciate their immense value and the value of tradition and continuity in keeping society going from generation to generation and bonding a common community from disparate individuals. For all its flaws (e.g., the above-mentioned "applauding and jumping up and down on cue"), the State of the Union ritual is a valuable symbol of our identity as a nation that both embraces and transcends the short-term politics of the any particular present moment. Yet this is, as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said "no ordinary time," and perhaps nothing would more immediately demonstrate the damage this presidency has done not just to our short-term politics but to the values of our nation than canceling Trump's SOTU show.

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