Inside the Beltway: The State of the Union spectacle begins

It is political theater at its most frantic: the State of the Union address — SOTU in popular parlance — may now stand for “so too” much.

The annual rite is amplified by shrill news coverage and endlessly punctuated by partisan applause, planned distractions, mystifying protocols and trite insider behavior. The speech-as-spectacle has strayed from the austere path recommended in Article II, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, which advises that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Yes, well. It’s oh, so much more these days.

The masters of showmanship over at the White House are using the speech Tuesday night to drum up the Democratic cause, offering an “enhanced broadcast” and “exclusive graphics” to those who sign up for it. “Are you in?” the White House asks.

Speechwriters also offered a coyly blurred image of the marked-up address via Instagram. There could be a reason for showbiz-style audience engagement here, though. Mr. Obama drew 52.4 million viewers during his first address in 2009. Last year, the audience was 33.3 million.

One Texas Republican imagined what the prime-time performance would entail. “I’m having visions of going to the circus and seeing clowns juggling things on fire,” sighed Sen. Ted Cruz during a radio appearance with host Glenn Beck.

All the trappings aside, length seems to matter to Democrats. Consider that Ronald Reagan’s annual addresses averaged 40 minutes each, according to a count from the University of California. Presidents George H.W. Bush averaged 45 minutes, Bill Clinton averaged 75 minutes, George W. Bush 52 minutes and Mr. Obama 64 minutes.

But the Grand Old Party has some grand stuff planned, too. There’s a trio of responses to the speech: An official version from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, a tea party response from Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and a zesty rebuttal from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, delivered via email and social media.

Will Americans watch the big show? One pollster says so: 67 percent of U.S. voters will likely watch Mr. Obama’s address— including 53 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday.

REPUBLICANS REVEAL SOME INNER METTLE

Republicans have begun to retake their “brand” and push back against Democratic claims that the GOP is conducting a “war on women.” A resolution before the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting this week stressed that “silence” on pro-life issues only allows canny Democrats to persuade key voters — women, Hispanics and young adults — that Republicans are archaic scoundrels.

But wait. The Democrats are now pushing back against the GOP pushback. And making a little money besides.

“Since we alerted you to Republicans’ revolting anti-choice agenda, your response has been stunning! Grass roots Democrats are standing up all across the country and declaring that they’ve had enough,” says a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email requesting donations against the “Republicans’ anti-woman agenda.”

The group gets personal with House Speaker John A. Boehner, adding, “Let’s show Boehner that there are consequences for Republicans’ unrelenting war on women.”

THE POLARIZED VORTEX

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