Wednesday, February 01, 2006

State of the Union

We watched President Bush give his State of the Union address last night. Well, I watched it; Carol dozed a bit. (Past her bedtime.) It was a middlin' effort, even by the standards of this President. Bush is not a great orator, though he has given a few very good speeches; this wasn't one of his best. Among much weightier issues, I did note that the President wants to increase support for basic research in the physical sciences, which of course will be good news to many of my colleagues.

We did not watch the "Democratic response" to the address, given by Gov. Tim Kaine, who has been governor of Virginia for a little less than three weeks. I really dislike these opposition response speeches. In this dislike I am heartily bipartisan. I disliked the Republican responses to BIll Clinton's SOTU addresses. I disliked the Democratic responses to the Reagan and Bush pere addresses. Wikipedia informs me that these opposition responses began in 1966, when LBJ was President. I'm sure I would have disliked the practice then.

Why? Two reasons. One, it's lame. The responses are uniformly awful speeches. Since they are typically given immediately after the President speaks, they cannot really be "responses" in the sense that they engage what the President actually said. Usually, the speech consists of an opposition politician -- these days, often a relatively obscure one -- sitting in a studio speaking in platitudes. The motive, obviously, is to make sure that the President does not completely dominate the news cycle after the address. It's a rhetorical version of the old Fairness Doctrine for TV and radio stations. (You remember that. The idea was that broadcasters had to provide "equal time" for all points of view. Well, not all, really. The Loony Anarchist Flat-Earth Marijuana Party did not get hours of air time to rebut the Republicans and Democrats.)

But this point of view takes the State of the Union address to be simply another move in the endless back-and-forth political quarrel. Which brings up my second reason for disliking such opposition responses. It's cynical. The State of the Union (which has sometimes been a written report to Congress rather than a speech) is actually an exercise of a duty enjoined upon the President in Article II Section 3 of the U. S. Constitution. So this practice is a bit like giving the opposition some time to rebut a new President's Inaugural Address. Seems unseemly somehow.

The hard-eyed political realists will respond that everything is politics anyway, and why should the President get a "free shot" at getting his message out? Because he is the President, that's why. This is a Constitutional function of his office. Respecting the function, treating it as something a little beyond the daily squabble, simply shows respect for the sovreignty of the people of the United States, who elected him. (And the whole people did elect him, even if, as has been the case in three out of the last four elections, the majority of people voted for somebody else.)

I do not believe that government decision-making should be "above poltics", and I am deeply suspicious of attempts to make it so. My friend Ron, in a comment to a previous post, posited that idealistic people see politics as morally tainted by compromise, so they naturally seek other, purer means (e.g., the courts) to pursue lofty goals on issues involving basic right and wrong. Ron has a charitable attitude here, and he may be right about some people. But I find it more likely that those who seek a "non-political" route to reach their policy ends are covertly hoping to trump the messy and inconclusive electoral/legislative system -- to achieve by fiat what the voters would never endorse.

This is why I think "campaign finance reform" has been such a wrong-headed mess. It is a fool's errand to try to make political campaigns less political. No idealistic system of contribution limits and spending restrictions can be both (1) consistent with the First Amendment, and (2) effective at improving the moral tone of our political life. Quite the contrary. Efforts to date have only redirected political passions (and money) into other, less accountable avenues of influence.

However, despite my belief in political decision-making (which is really a belief in democracy), I do think that it is a healthy thing to keep certain institutions slightly apart from the fray. I think that the courts should be as apolitical as practical, which is why I believe in judicial restraint. And I think that certain great occasions should be treated as actions of the whole nation, not one faction or another. They should have an aura about them. They should be reminders of the solemn duties of democratic self-government. Thus, we should have loud, vigorous, free-wheeling campaigns, but the elections themselves should have more of an atmosphere of unity, even of a kind of sanctity. And -- is it too much to ask? -- perhaps when the President meets his obligation to report to Congress on the State of the Union and suggest "such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient" --perhaps it would not hurt us, all of us, for that one evening, just to hear what he says.

Postscript: I just read this to my wife, who disagrees with me on most things political, and especially about this President. But she pretty much agrees with what I have written here -- which, I think, strengthens my point.


Blogger Worst Weather Ever said...

found this in google blog search. i agree the responses are lame, but i actually like the spirit that it can include the other side very quickly for public consumption. it feels very "democratic"

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Pirate Pete said...

Check out what this guy said about the state of the union:

9:05 PM  

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