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State of the Union Preview: The New Drive to Eliminate Partisan Rancor

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It began in 1983 as the congressional version of a high-school gag.
Frustrated that once again they would be reduced to extras in the over-produced spectacle of a Ronald Reagan State of the Union address, House Democrats secretly plotted their revenge. When the advance text of the president's remarks circulated on Capitol Hill the day of the speech, Tip O'Neill's merry pranksters highlighted an innocuous sentence towards the end of the speech: "We who are in government must take the lead in restoring the economy."
When Reagan read this line on cue, House Democrats erupted as if the president had just announced V-J Day. Rising to their feet in celebration, Democrats lustily cheered this backhanded acknowledgement of the federal role in the economy as if the Gipper had proclaimed, "The era of Big Government is back." The president immediately realized that he was being razzed by Democratic street theater. Reagan ad-libbed, referring to the advance text, "I thought you were all reading the paper." That jibe prompted to Republicans to reward their president with a standing ovation.
From these light-hearted roots -- pranking a president who could enjoy a joke -- grew an insidious tradition of hard-edged partisanship. By 1987, New York Times columnist William Safire, a former Richard Nixon speechwriter with a connoisseur's appreciation of the rituals of the presidency, was lamenting the sorry state of the State of the Union address. Organized rooting sections, including the Cabinet and guests in the balcony, had -- in Safire's words -- "transmogrified the event from dutiful report and respectful hearing into a clash between branches of government."
Those were, of course, the good old days before a congressman impulsively shouted "You lie!" during a presidential speech to Congress (Barack Obama's 2009 health care address) and a Supreme Court justice mouthed the words "not true" in dissent during the 2010 State of the Union. Like so many partisan rituals on Capitol Hill, the syncopated standing ovations from one party and angry grimaces from the other party fail to sway voters watching at home. All these pep-rally gimmicks do is to contribute to the cynical public's conviction that politics on Capitol Hill are sophomoric when they are not vitriolic.
But in the sad-eyed wake of the Arizona massacre, State of the Union civility is making a dramatic comeback. The Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, proposed Monday in an open letter to the congressional leaders in both parties an end "to partisan seating for the State of the Union." Their rationale: "Perhaps having both parties sit together, intermingled, would help control the choreography of partisanship that accompanies the president's remarks."
Unlike most high-minded notions in Washington (which fare about as well as the drive to make Esperanto the universal language), the proposal to end segregated seating in the chamber of the House of Representative during the State of the Union seems to have hit the moment. "It's an idea that we've been thinking about for a while," said Jim Kessler, the vice president policy at the Third Way. "And with the shooting of Gabby Giffords and the general feeling of collective remorse, we decided to put it out."
Endorsed by Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, an honorary co-chairman of the Third Way, the nostrum was also blessed by The Washington Post in an editorial: "This would be a gesture, but gestures matter." In normal times, newspaper editorial pages are where good-government ideas go to die. But these are not normal times. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Steny Hoyer, the second ranking House Democrat, issued statements Thursday announcing that they would discuss the open-seating plan with their Republican counterparts next week.
The phrase "across the aisle" may be one of the most tedious Capitol Hill clichés, but the symbolism embedded in physically entering the other party's space remains powerful. During a thoughtful discussion of the filibuster during the opening session of the Senate last week, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts walked over to Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin in an I-come-in-peace gesture. Moments later, Harkin made his own pilgrimage to the Republican section of the Senate chamber.
When Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 25, it may take more than bipartisan seating arrangements -- or even exiling a few potential loudmouths to the quiet car -- to suspend the rancorous divisions in Congress. Television cameras will still zoom in to highlight who is wildly applauding and who is sitting with their arms tightly folded. The temptation will remain to judge the president's popularity and the future of his legislative agenda based on a crude Applause Meter.
But Obama could change all that -- and bring a new tone of gravity to the State of the Union -- by uttering a simple sentence early in the speech: "In light of the grave problems facing the nation, I request that anyone who is tempted please refrain from applause until the end of the address."
With America fighting two wars, with unemployment still near double-digit levels and with the national debt at staggering levels, this is not a moment for irrational exuberance from either party. These are sad times, for the state of the union is deeply troubled. That is why the best way to honor this constitutionally mandated moment -- and to respect the ordeal of Gabby Giffords -- is to greet the president's words on Jan. 25 with the sounds of silence.

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Very well written... Many good ideas... But, from past experience regarding "State of the Union" speeches, I don't expect much to change. I really wish it would. Now, more than ever, we all need to work for the common good of our great country. Our political parties and personal agenda's should take a back seat and stay there.

January 23 2011 at 8:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Well written. It would be nice to get some civility back in the tone of this nation. To have a congressman shout "you lie" was an embarassment to the entire country and he should have been removed from the room by his collegues and actually punished with more than a slap on the wrist and a snicker saying good job man. No ever yelled such a thing when George W. Bush was actually lieing to congress and the nation about weapons of mass destruction and Dick Chaney's ill conceived war. Now that would have been a time to yell "You lie Mr. Puppet In Chief". But of course the democrats have too much class and intelligence to do such a thing. Obviously the congressman who did do such a thing has neither.

January 22 2011 at 12:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I find it odd that the writer noted the court Justice's mouthing of the word "untrue" given that it was in shocked response to the statement of the President which was in fact not accurate, and that it came in the course of an ambush attack on the helpless members of the court who were attending the address out of respect, not out of constitutional duty. In my opinion, the President's behavior last year was deplorable and has yet to see any public hint of a well-deserved apology for the misbehavior. I am not content to hear hypocritical pleas for civility from sources not offering the same level of polite consideration.

January 17 2011 at 6:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Eeeeeks! After reading the posts in response to McCain calling Obama a partriot I am genuinely concerned for the President's safety. We have some very disturbed people in this country. The idea that Obama wants to destroy America and all the people in the adminstration (whose families,friends,etc.are Americans) are helping him is just so insane. Seriously. People can't be that crazy. Can they? Obama is a TRUE AMERICAN and a PATRIOT. Good God, guide and protect our dear President. Amen.

January 16 2011 at 7:08 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Obama is just going to say lets get along and both parties work toghether and he will work hard towards this and all the other things he said when he was campaighing for office it was lies then and will be more lies now

January 16 2011 at 6:44 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

This is the problem with partisanship. It pits one part against the other in an ideological battle of who has the best values.

Neither has the perfect solution while both may have particular aspects worth considering, while either opposes the other based upon its particular value set there can be no cooperation and therefor no progress.

Dissolving the parties and coming together under the banner of a unified government is the only answer.

Change is hard but it is possible.

January 16 2011 at 8:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to rodrockler's comment

What you want to see happen in America has a name, it is called a dictatorship. Political differences are good for our nation, not bad. It is the complete disrespect and the ability of none party to shut out the other when in power by members of this WH and Congress that hurts not only our nation, but also shuts out the voice of half of our citizens. There is only one solution, and that is to keep purging those who are the problem and electing Independents who will work together for America's sake, not their party's. We have a long way to go.

January 16 2011 at 5:59 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

There is no such thing as partisanship. Vigorous debate has kept us free for 200 years and been strengthened by debate. Compromise is found only in dictatorships and even then it's for theater. I know of no way to compromise on socialism the only way it could ever be successful is forcing it on those who disagree. 100% participation is absolutely necessary for it to "work"and that can only be done in a dictatorship, and that's where we are headed.

January 16 2011 at 10:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Why can't Democrats be honest as to why they are attempting to have the 'mixed' seating? It has nothing to do with bipartisanship but everything to do with them now having so many less in number and not wanting that to be hi-lited, via camera, to the American public as a reminder of the 'thumping'(the word used by President Barack Hussein Obama) the Democrats received via the mid-term elections.

January 15 2011 at 10:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am completely positive that the GOP will welcome any Dems who wish to sit with them.

January 14 2011 at 2:01 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to tistolaugh's comment

Let's see if the GOP will come over and sit with the Democrats. Overall, it would be better if the Congress was seated by State alphabetical order. Third parties and independents may change things in the future.

January 14 2011 at 7:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

firstad this is not first grade, and these elected officials can sit wherever they wish during SOTU addresses. Always could. But since this "new idea" is the Dems, they should lead by example and go sit amongst the GOP. Unless they are just playing games.

January 14 2011 at 11:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How about the president starting with saying "I should not have said republicans get to the back of the bus", or calling voters not agreeing with him "enemies".

January 14 2011 at 1:51 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bltcarbiz's comment

jfbac1 Boehner has headed the House for just over 2-weeks for crying out loud. If he does not satisfy the majority of America by 2012, he and the GOP will likely be gone in 2012. That's how democracy works.

January 14 2011 at 11:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Like Jai Guru Deva Om I am dismayed by all the vitriol. I thought the article's suggestion was quite reasonable and might lead to more productive dialogue.

January 14 2011 at 12:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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