OPINION: The State Of The Union Is A Tradition For Trump To End — Permanently

Jim Huffman | Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a pretty good idea when she urged President Trump to postpone the State of the Union Address until after the federal government reopens. But it was only a pretty good idea. A really good idea would be to cancel the address this year. An even better idea would be to cancel it permanently.

Over the last few decades, American politics have devolved into tribal warfare and nowhere is the tribalism more apparent — or embarrassing and ridiculous — than at the State of the Union spectacle.

The routine is familiar to all. Democrats and Republicans arrive early and segregate themselves in the House Chambers. The Supreme Court justices, at least some of them, sit near the front like expressionless mannequins (except for Justice Alito on one occasion). Then the Sergeant at Arms of the House intones: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” And then the President works his way down the aisle shaking hands with and greeting what appear to be members of Congress, although they could be mistaken for oddly-dressed groupies at a rock concert.

Once the president makes his way to the podium he is introduced to much applause from members of his own party, and steely stares from members of the other tribe. The speech, which always lasts way to long, is a collection of applause lines interspersed by mentions of ordinary Americans strategically planted in the gallery. These are people who have either suffered horrible tragedies or performed incredible feats of heroism. The most sympathetic of these human plants sits next to the first lady who looks on sympathetically.

The whole thing has the feel of a high school pep rally which the opposing teams fans have been required to attend. There’s lots of jumping up and down by members of the president’s tribe. Very occasionally the opposing tribe’s members are forced to rise to their feet to avoid appearing to be unpatriotic. Sort of like when the national anthem is played and both the home town and visiting crowds stand in unison.

When it’s over, it isn’t really over because the opposing party gets equal time on television to disparage everything the president has said while offering applause lines of their own – though there is no audience to applaud because the chosen rebuttal speaker is forced to stand in isolation before a camera with at least a dozen American flags in the background. Often it seems the selection of the opposing tribe’s speaker is intended to raise the profile of some rising star, although it can have the opposite effect as former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal can attest.

One can imagine that a presidential address to the Congress and the nation might contribute to the democratic process. Indeed there have been occasions when circumstances called for a serious and thoughtful speech and one was delivered. But we are well past that possibility now. The battle lines are drawn and the State of the Union exists entirely to make those lines clear. The viewing public need only observe whom among their elected representatives stands and who sits.

The Constitution does not require that this spectacle continue. Like presidents before Woodrow Wilson in 1913, the president can fulfill his constitutional obligation by reporting in writing to Congress on the state of the union. But no president since Wilson, with the exception of Herbert Hoover, has been willing to forego the political opportunity presented by a State of the Union address.

What we need is an iconoclastic president willing to break with tradition. Come to think of it, we have just such a president today. Imagine the press Trump would get — the pontificating by dozens of talking heads representing one tribe or the other — if he took Pelosi’s advise and cancelled the whole thing. Really, think about it Mr. President. There’s still time to save us all from this annual embarrassment.

James Huffman is dean emeritus at Lewis & Clark Law School.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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