- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The kumbaya quest for peace and love in American politics has hit a new low. Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, has proposed that as a symbolic stab at the “nasty partisanship” in government, members of Congress should abjure the tradition of sitting in party blocks during the State of the Union address and instead intermingle. Perhaps they all should hold hands while the president is speaking too.

A letter to congressional leaders signed by proponents of this exercise in musical chairs claims, “the choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room - while the other side sits - is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the president is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two.” Mr. Udall is clearly focused on the wrong problem. Presumably orgiastic clapping, not sitting stonefaced, is what offends the seriousness of the august institution.

Shifting the seats around will not alter the president’s applause lines. Democrats, wherever placed in the chamber, will still faithfully rise and clap at the appointed times. If such demonstrations are what Mr. Udall believes are “unbecoming” to the Congress, then Democrats should instruct their members to refrain from such demonstrations, similar to how the NFL has tried to promote civility by cracking down on post-touchdown celebrations. If clapping isn’t banned, the primary effect of the seating change would be to distribute standing ovations across the chamber, making it appear that the president enjoys more congressional support than he does in fact.

The tradition of the leaders of the two houses sitting behind the president is also part of the partisan pageantry of the event. For the past two years, Mr. Obama could count on then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, to sit behind him beaming in adoration. This year, Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, will be looking over his left shoulder, providing different reaction shots. Mr. Boehner is a gentleman, but no polite poker face could mask the fact that his conservative beliefs are completely at odds with Mr. Obama’s government-centric, secular worldview. This dynamic will provide another useful reminder to viewers at home that there is an opposing viewpoint to the Democrats’ deficit-fueled big-government policies.

There is a salutary impact in having Mr. Obama face an audience that doesn’t give him automatic adulation. The White House minutely stage-manages the president’s every appearance, and his cherry-picked audiences ritually show him the maximum amount of devotion. It would be instructive for Mr. Obama, as well as the American people, to see that not everyone is entranced by his teleprompter-enhanced oratory.

The congressional love letter states, “There is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country.” But while Mr. Obama is addressing the entire nation, he will be presenting his personal, partisan views. The State of the Union address is not simply an annual status report, it’s a major political event where presidents establish their agenda for the year. Nothing about it is bipartisan, and it is an appropriate time to call attention to the robust differences of opinion that exist in America over public policy.

Mixing up the seating arrangements in the congressional chamber will simply reduce the State of the Union to the level of another pro-Barack pep rally, minus the “Together We Thrive” T-shirts.

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