President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address covered a wide array of domestic and international issues. At eighty minutes, it was long of the longest such speeches. Putting the policies aside, Trump’s delivery last night was one of his strongest. Indeed, while many have objected to the content, it was a much better delivery than his inauguration in my opinion. CBS News is reporting that 75 percent of Americans watching approved of the speech.
However, most of us in the Beltway were watching the awkward tension between the members, including the absence of boycotting members and at least one incident of loud booing from the Democratic members. Rep. Luis Gutierrez was shown walking out as members chanting “USA, USA.” (He later remarked “Whoever translated it for him from Russian did a good job.”) Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi led most Democrats out of the door immediately after the President finished and most Democrats did not applaud for most of the speech. I have been previously critical of a Republican member protesting during the State of the Union\ and a serious breach of tradition by Associate Justice Sam Alito.
Here is my column in the Hill newspaper on the controversy.
One year after various Democratic politicians boycotted the presidential inauguration, there is a growing list of members now pledging to boycott President Trump’s State of the Union address. As with the boycott of the inauguration, this protest misses the point of the State of the Union and, more importantly, the role played by members of Congress. To put it simply, it is not about him or them. It is about us.
Besides the inauguration, the State of the Union is the only occasion in which members of all three branches gather together in a formal joint event. It is a demonstration of civility and comity between the branches. It has become a symbol of a unified government where a president speaks to the body of representatives for the American people. This was not always the case. Indeed, the State of the Union as we know it is a relatively recent tradition.
Article II of the Constitution states 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.” It does not require that such a statement be made in person or that members attend such a session.
Indeed, while George Washington gave the first in-person address on Jan. 8, 1790, many presidents simply sent a written account to Congress. Thomas Jefferson thought the gathering of Congress to listen to him was a bit too monarchical in appearance, a criticism that many have made with the increasing pomp and circumstance surrounding modern State of the Union speeches. It was Woodrow Wilson who returned to in-person reports, though Jimmy Carter in 1981 returned to the written option.
There are ample reasons to dislike the State of the Union addresses. They have become more showy and less substantive with every speech. Presidents now parade tragic or heroic cases in the gallery while both sides conduct ritualistic cheers or jeers. What follows is some of the lowest grade analysis as commentators pretend that the address was newsworthy for its content or omission. Fewer people are watching the addresses, which have declined from a 44.3 rating during the Clinton presidency to 19 or 20 for recent addresses. (Notably, Trump was responsible for a sharp increase to 28.7 in his Feb. 28 address.)
So if these addresses have been less substantive and less watched over time, why does any of this matter? The answer is that the modern address has one overriding redeeming quality: optics. When a president takes the dais, he stands before a body composed of all three branches, including the members of both houses of Congress. Despite deep divisions over the years, these gatherings have taken place as the legislative branch listens to the head of the executive branch on the state of our government.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has declared that she will boycott the address and asked, “Why would I take my time to go and sit and listen to a liar?” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) says that she will not attend because “President Trump’s address will be full of innuendo, empty promises, and lies.” It is tempting to dismiss this content with the observation that, if we removed “innuendo, empty promises, and lies” from the congressional record, we would be left on some days with little more than a transcript the length of a haiku poem.
Yet, these statements reveal a troubling and fundamental miscomprehension of the role of members. First and foremost, it is not about these members as individuals. They represent hundreds of thousands of citizens, including some who support and others who oppose the president. As representatives, they are expected to attend these events to represent those citizens. They do not have to rejoice, but they have to represent.
Second, the view of a given president is not the material question for a member. Members have gathered out of respect for the office, not the officeholder. They gathered to hear Richard Nixon despite his criminal allegations. Indeed, Waters appeared to listen to Clinton, who not only lied under oath, but was impeached for doing so. Members often have significant objections to the conduct or policies or even the character of a president, but they appear because our government is greater than its individual parts.
Third, if members begin to engage in protests or boycotts of the State of the Union, we will lose the little decorum that we have retained in these increasingly poisonous, petty political times. If attendance is treated as an endorsement of presidential policies, more and more seats will be left vacant as partisan voters demand boycotts. The result will be further calcification of our divisions, where even the ceremonial joint sessions are no longer tolerable.
What is most concerning is the view of boycotting members that there is no longer any value in listening to the president. Waters added, “I don’t appreciate him and I wouldn’t waste my time sitting in that house listening to what he has to say. He does not deserve my attention.” Rep. John Lewis(D-Ga.) has said, “I cannot, in all good conscious, be in a room with what he has said about so many Americans. I just cannot do it.”
When James Madison and others fashioned our constitutional system, they sought to create avenues in which factional interests could be converted into majoritarian compromises. For all of our divisions through the centuries, this system has survived because it forces disparate and divisive interests to communicate and negotiate. While we have many periods of “gridlock,” the modern State of the Union reaffirms the premise that all groups and parties remain committed to this process, and to each other.
While some refer to these speeches as an address to the nation, it was intended to be an address to Congress. It is the most visible manifestation of a system that seeks to create avenues for dialogue despite our differences. This is not some Tinder dating app where you swipe left to reject a president or some reality show where you can vote yourself off the island. Indeed, the Constitution is something of a forced date. It forces politicians to deal with each other. The State of the Union has become a symbol that our government remains unified, not on policy but process.
When we are deeply divided, the value of coming together for these events is more, not less, important. With our politicians unable to pass a budget to fund our government beyond the first week of February, this is the worse time for members to stomp off in a puerile fit. A president is coming to Congress on Jan. 30, and members should be there to greet him.