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Pageantry, tradition, and protocol all play a big part in the annual State of the Union address. They are the reason that the speech is like no other in American political life. In recent years, another equally important element has joined those three: atmospherics. The success of a State of the Union can be judged in no small way by the reaction the speech generates in the House chamber. The ritual standing for applause and approval – or remaining seated to express disapproval – by the assembled legislators acts as the first snap poll of the speech’s overall effectiveness.
In every other year in memory, the Congressional audience for a State of the Union sat segregated by party, mixed by house, astride the central aisle of the House chamber. This year, led by young, eager, and inexperienced Democrats in the Senate, many lawmakers decided to break with this tradition and sat intermixed, Republican and Democrat, lion and lamb, together.
It was intended as a show of unity in the face of the evil of the Tucson shootings two weeks ago. More cynical commentators smelled a plot to dilute the effect of the November elections, by obscuring the size of the Republican opposition in the new House. Whatever the purpose, it now seems clear that the Democrats’ bi-partisan sit in was too clever by a half. The seating arrangement contributed to an uncharacteristically restrained audience for the speech, which when combined with a lackluster performance from the president, ended up killing one of President Obama’s best chances to make the case for his agenda.
The Huffington Post and Associated Press noticed. A review of the speech laments, “On a night typically known for its political theater, the lawmakers sometimes seemed subdued, as if still in the shadow of the Arizona shootings…There was less of the see-saw applause typical of State of the Union speeches in years past, where Democrats stood to applaud certain lines and Republicans embraced others.”
The numbers bear this out. Not counting jokes and references to specific people in attendance, such as the president’s congratulatory words for House Speaker John Boehner, President Obama was interrupted for applause seventy times on Tuesday according to the White House transcript. Last year, the White House noted more than 100 interruptions during the State of the Union. And while according to the Washington Post the president spoke about ten minutes less this year than last, many commentators said that this year’s speech seemed to them to be too long. That’s a product of the relatively dim reception that greeted the president’s words.
Could the seating arrangements really have made that much of a difference in the lack of applause? It could. Ironically, the reason may be what Democrats have been complaining about as lacking from the nation’s (read their opponents’) political discourse ever since the Tucson shootings: civility.
Politicians, like people, tend to act differently in like-minded groups than they otherwise would act in mixed company, as anyone who has ever attended a dinner party at a friend’s house knows. The rules of civility demand that one avoid doing anything to deliberately offend his host or his fellow guests. Certain subjects are considered taboo in polite conversation, and a myriad of rules of etiquette govern everything from what one wears, to how one eats.
This mixed company affect was on full display during the State of the Union. President Obama received almost no rousing standing ovations for any of his policy proposals or ideological statements. Imagine the raucous applause with which a Democrats-only bloc would have greeted the president’s assertion that the nations could not afford a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. Or consider how a Republican section would have jumped to its feet to embrace the president’s call for lowering the corporate income tax rate. Instead, these and most of the president’s initiatives received only polite applause, totally in keeping with the dinner party rules.
As a result, the speech seemed flat, and will almost certainly go down as a mostly forgettable address. Of course, this may have been true anyway given the times the country is in and the relatively milquetoast agenda the president put forward. But in trying to score cheap political points against Republicans, Democrats may have, civilly, shot themselves in the foot.
Originally published in The Daily Caller.