On Tuesday, Washington Reminded Us Why it’s So Unlikable

Were you one of the 38 million Americans who watched the State of the Union on Tuesday? If you weren’t, don’t feel bad. After all, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was in attendance, and she doesn’t seem to have caught much of it either:

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Before the speech, I wrote that the content of it wouldn’t really matter. After the speech, I’m here to tell you that I was right. (In case you’re still curious, you can find a copy of the text here.) Sure, if you read the editorial pages, you’ll learn that the President either had his coming out party as Dictator-in-Chief or that he, as the New York Times put it, struck a tough tone on a modest agenda. Fine. The executive actions that the speech alluded to will happen (or not), but they don’t depend on the speech – and that was the point: the President seemed resigned to his inability to convince or cajole Republicans. What a pity.

By the way, did you catch the Republican response? In keeping with their free-market ideology, the GOP provided choices: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers delivered the official response, while Rep. Mike Lee spoke for the Tea Party Express, and Sen. Rand Paul spoke for Sen. Rand Paul. The rush for the microphone is a bit perplexing, since the empty-room address to a stationary camera is a hard performance for anyone to pull off. It’s too easy to come across more like an infomercial than anything else, and that’s when you can manage to look at the right camera or keep your mouth from going dry. That’s not a critique of the response’s substance; the production of it is just a really hard thing to do well. (In recent years, I thought Bob McDonell and Paul Ryan actually did a pretty good job.)

Here’s a substantive critique of this year’s Republican response: was Cathy McMorris Rodgers purposefully trying to alienate anyone who doesn’t share her religious beliefs?

The most revealing detail of the whole night might very well be that we have pre-scheduled rebuttals at all. Think about it: the President hasn’t said anything, but you’re already scheduling airtime to disagree. There was a taste of this in how McMorris Rodgers and Lee both criticized the President for his focus on inequality – which was expected to be a big part of his remarks, but ended up only making a brief appearance.

In fact, the scramble for criticism after any President makes this sort of address can lead to some awkward moments. On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer criticized Obama for being thin on substantive policy proposals, calling it “the Chestnut Speech.” Paul Ryan leveled the same criticism a few minutes later: “I didn’t hear any new ideas.

Again, fine. I didn’t know that novelty was so intrinsically valuable to America’s conservatives. But here’s the thing: Ryan goes on to criticize the President for trying the same things that haven’t worked so far in his administration. See the problem? Let me spell it out for you: Obama is proposing the same stuff from a year ago because after he proposed it a year ago, Congress didn’t implement it. Now, you can criticize the ideas as bad, and you can criticize the ideas as impossible to implement. What you cannot do, while making any claim to consistency, is also say that they are bad because they have been implemented and they haven’t helped.

Immigration reform, corporate tax reform, raising the minimum wage, and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay are not bad ideas that haven’t worked. They’re ideas that haven’t been tried.

Speaking of consistency, Sen. Ted Cruz is incensed about this Administration’s use of Executive authority. Jake Tapper asked him if it bothered him at all that both President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton had actually issued more executive orders through this point in their administrations. Cruz’s answer? It’s not the number, it’s the intent: “Over and over if he disagrees with a law, he simply says he won’t enforce it.”

Am I the only one who remembers the controversy over President Bush’s use of ‘signing statements’?

A signing statement is a document issued by the President at the time that he signs a bill into law declaring sections of that law unenforceable because the President views them as unconstitutional. Rather then vetoing the law or challenging it in the Courts, the President picks and chooses. And because lawyers are creative, that loophole can be deployed in some interesting ways. In other words, it is EXACTLY what Cruz, and others, are so upset about now.

Now, you’re welcome to think that that is an appropriate use of the President’s power – to be perfectly clear, I do not. I didn’t like it when Bush did it, and I don’t like it when Obama does it. But what you cannot do is think that it is a legitimate use of power by one President and an illegitimate use of power by another President. Not if you want to be taken seriously.

I could go on, but you get the point: say what you will of the speech and its trappings, the whole night in Washington is enough to break the spirit of an optimist. Part of what we elect the President to do is to cut through all of that. That’s his unique responsibility.

One last digression: do people remember when Justice Antonin Scalia derided the Affordable Care Act as too long? He complained that he couldn’t really be expected to read anything that lengthy. That really set my teeth on edge. Frankly, yes: you are expected to read the whole thing. Maybe no one else is, but if you sit on the Supreme Court of the United States, I don’t want to hear about how there’s too much reading for you to handle. If you’re not up to it, let someone else take a crack at it.

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Obama reminds me of Scalia. (Go ahead, Google that sentence. That’s guaranteed to be a Fog of Policy original.) Can’t you just imagine him asking: “You really expect me to get anything done in this climate?” Yes, yes I do. You’re the President. It’s a tough job, but I seem to remember you asking for it.

At the end of the evening, the assembled government and spectators took a moment to give the longest ovation of the night to Army Ranger Cory Remsburg:

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Remsburg had been horribly injured during a roadside attack in Afghanistan. He’s still visibly struggling to recover from injuries that he’ll carry for the rest of his life. During the ovation, the camera cut to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an observant viewer would have also noticed Rep. Tammy Duckworth struggling to stand. Struggling because in 2004, the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in Iraq was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, and Rep. Duckworth lost both her legs.

Politicians like to cloak themselves in martial language. Ask them, they’ll tell you how they have to ‘fight’ for America, that they’re out there ‘battling’ for you, that the other side is conducting a ‘war’ against this group or the other. The sight of Remsburg and Duckworth is a healthy reminder of the very real battles we ask our soldiers to fight, and the very real sacrifices we ask them to make.

On Tuesday night, the contrast with Washington’s self-involved incompetence was almost unbearable.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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