The Night of the SOTU: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

OK, I lied. Tuesday night’s State of the Union spectacle ranged from the not so sublime to the not as ridiculous as we might have expected. Unfortunately every time Barack Obama speaks the expectations are sky-high. Many hoped for soaring rhetoric that would give a worried nation the security of knowing we have a plan to get us out of this economic slump.  The rhetoric was hardly soaring and the plan was vague at best. Even liberal pundits who avoid criticism of Obama at all costs could not avoid the seeming contradiction of a five-year freeze in discretionary spending coupled with a 1960’s space-race like initiative to increase our global competitiveness. How do we improve our education and technology without investment? How do we invest with a freeze in discretionary spending? MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell called it a mathematical puzzle with no solution. The other assertion made by the President that was awfully hard to swallow was that any bill with earmarks would be vetoed by him. Senate Leader Harry Reid has already gone on the record calling this notion absurd. I suppose the only highlight from the speech was Obama’s reasonable suggestion that health care reform had room for improvement and that should be pursued. Repeal of course, is not the answer.

Sometimes the annual mandatory drudgery of the State of the Union is at least enlivened by the sports arena atmosphere on the House floor. When Obama says a great lib talking point, the Democrats rise from the seats and cheer. The Republicans sit on their hands. Every once in a while everyone rises. But not this year. This year the ghost of the very much alive but badly wounded Gabby Giffords cast a pall on the whole affair. In a show of “civility” many Republicans and Democrats agreed to sit together, tossing out the unwritten convention of segregated seating. At first, I loved the idea. It meant that each Congressman would have to decide when to clap based on the merits of the speech and not on “peer pressure”. But the bottom line was this reduced the number of standing ovations and applause breaks. At one point, when Obama made a fish joke about Washington bureaucracy, it reminded me of Bill Maher waiting for applause after a stinker joke. I actually liked Obama’s joke but it still went over awkwardly.

After Obama gave us lukewarm confidence in the year ahead, Republican Representative Paul Ryan came along with the GOP response and warned us we’re going to hell in a hand-basket. Do not ever let this man staff a suicide hotline. I will say however, that his performance beat the crap out of Bobby Jindal two years ago and what’s his name last year. One commentator today said the job of the GOP response is to “do no harm” and Ryan achieved that. He sounded reasoned and competent even if you disagree with his politics.

The rank and file GOPhers would love to have left it at that but someone whispered into the echo chamber that is Michele Bachmann’s head, that she should deliver her own State of the Union response geared toward the Tea Party. And so, streamed live on the Tea Party Express web site was Michele Bachmann. Having just said a day or so earlier that our Founding Fathers worked tirelessly until slavery was abolished (I kid you not), one should have expected Bachmann to be totally ridiculous Tuesday night. Well, she was only slightly ridiculous. She came with props, most notably charts telling us what we already knew about spending over the past few years. She joined Ryan’s chorus of how ineffective Obama supposedly was over the past two years. She might have gotten through her completely unnecessary oration clean as a whistle were it not for two things.

First, CNN decided Bachmann’s speech was worth covering live. So, using a Fox camera feed (OMG … CNN in bed with Fox just days after Olbermann leaves MSNBC … be afraid, be very afraid) CNN showed us Bachmann delivering her speech … wait for it … to the Tea Party camera somewhere off stage right. The result was that most of us wondered what imaginary friend Michele was talking to for the entire speech. It was one of the more bizarre errors in optics ever to be witnessed, and indeed toppled the record holder, Mr. Bobby Jindal and his odd look of two years ago.

But the kicker for me on the content side was the way Bachmann concluded the speech, citing the soldiers at Iwo Jima (which she could not pronounce) and somehow suggesting that Japanese tyranny which we defeated in the 1940’s was equivalent to Washington tyranny today. So of course she was calling for us to defeat this tyranny once again. Fortunately, she stopped short of explicitly requesting second amendment remedies.

After sitting through Tuesday night’s display, I longed for the days from Thomas Jefferson through William Howard Taft, when Presidents literally mailed it in. No public speech and no need for opposing rebuttal. Let’s face it, every year the night pretty much amounts to the President setting unachievable goals and the opposition calling him a liar.

Well at least this year, no one actually yelled “you lie” from the floor.

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