U.S. Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, thinks Republican and Democratic members of Congress should sit with each other, rather than separately by party, when President Obama makes his State of the Union speech tonight in the Capitol. In a letter to the leadership of the House and the Senate that has gotten a lot of attention in D.C., Udall said that “partisan seating arrangements at State of the Union addresses serve to symbolize division instead of the common challenges we face in securing a strong future for the United States…. 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.”
Udall is right about the symbolism of the tradition, which dates back two centuries, but his proposal is just more symbolism.
This isn’t one of those dinner parties where the hosts break up the married couples to inspire more lively conversation. Sitting next to each other isn’t going to stop the Democrats from applauding, or the Republicans from sitting on their hands or worse, like when a congressman from South Carolina screamed “you lie” during a health care speech by Obama to a joint session of Congress in 2009, or when at last year's State of the Union, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito visibly disagreed when the President criticized one of the Roberts court’s more extreme examples of judicial activism. With differences so deep, putting congresspeople within reach of each other may not be a good idea at all.
So what exactly is the attraction of Udall’s proposal? As in every mass tragedy in recent years – from JFK’s assassination to 9/11 to the carnage in Arizona – there is a brief period in which people want to reach out, beyond politics, for reassurance that we are all, or at least most of us, still human beings. We’re still within that gauzy penumbra. Speaking in Tucson, Professor Obama got high marks from the opinionators and the public for pointing out that incivility cannot explain insanity – and thus smothering the debate over the name-calling and extreme partisan politics of our era. But is that really the problem in America today?
True, the majority of Americans probably are uncomfortable with the current decibel level. We remember wistfully an America when things were better all around – or perhaps merely seemed so. But there is, without any question, plenty of reason to be angry right now. Not since the Depression have so many people suffered while so few prosper. Our American spirit has been shaken, maybe shattered. We have been betrayed by those we entrusted to protect us.
I don’t agree with many of the loudest, angriest people, but I don’t blame them for being loud or angry.
Sometimes that’s the only way you get things done.
Addressing another exercise in symbolism – a new non-profit political organization called “No Labels” dedicated to “bipartisanship” – New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently made the point: “The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation.”
When you look at what has happened to this country, the dire conditions at home and the dangers we face abroad, and what we have to do to make sure our kids have some measure of the security and prosperity we enjoyed, talking about where members of Congress sit is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.