Normally this is where I’d rattle off a few paragraphs advancing my argument, to wit, that the State of the Union is the lamest official event in American politics (the lamest unofficial event is the White House Correspondents Dinner), enjoyed by no one and valued by attendees only for the opportunity it presents for halfwit virtue-signaling on the cheap.
Do I have to make that argument, though? You’ve all endured this miserable spectacle at some point in your lives. You know firsthand how insufferable it is. Instead of me having to convince you, the burden should be on you to convince me: Why wouldn’t America be better off with the president submitting a written statement to Congress in lieu of a speech, as presidents did for nearly the entire 19th century? It was Thomas Jefferson, a man remembered for his many great ideas, who ended the practice of SOTU oratory. It was Woodrow Wilson, a man remembered for his many terrible ones, who brought it back. Presidents change but the speech is invariably boring, too long, and irrelevant politically despite the massive audience and even more massive hype for it year after year. The tradition of oratory continues because every White House views it as a chance to deliver its message directly to the people at a scale unmatched by anything outside of Super Bowl Sunday. But the idea of the SOTU as a potential gamechanger is a myth. Ariel Edwards-Levy, HuffPost’s chief poll analyst, has written a post every year for the past four years around this time reminding readers that the SOTU never affects the polls. Certainly never long-term. It’s a total nothingburger.
Even the people involved in it don’t take it seriously enough to spellcheck the invitations:
Republicans may have to recall all State of the Union tickets because they say “Uniom” not “Union,” per two Dem aides. pic.twitter.com/FosSnznIHp
— Laura Barrón-López (@lbarronlopez) January 29, 2018
When I tweeted something this morning that it should be abolished, the sooner the better, some liberal tweeted back that of course a right-winger who’s worried about Trump screwing up would want the SOTU canceled. Uh, no. For one thing, Trump won’t screw up. He’s fine when he’s on-script and he’s always on-script for big events like this. He was on-script for last year’s quasi-SOTU, his address to the joint houses of Congress, and he did well. I want the event abolished because it reeks perennially and Trump in theory might be the only president with the stones to end the tradition. He’s the populist who was going to clean house in Washington and end all of its most awful practices, starting with lobbyist abuses, right? Well, cleaning up lobbying hasn’t panned out but he’s done okay with some other excesses, like hyper-regulation, and he now has an opportunity to make a small cosmetic change that would signal his broader intent on doing business differently.
Go back to the written statement to Congress. A long laundry-list speech of policy priorities can only hurt him by giving the opposition party a point of reference later for broken promises and failed initiatives. If he’s hellbent on having a big night all to himself on national television — this is Donald Trump we’re talking about, after all — he could have his cake and eat it too by sending Congress some anodyne written SOTU and then delivering a short (emphasis: short) primetime speech from the Rose Garden about whatever he wants to talk about. Or better yet, have a 30-minute press conference. Both of those ideas are waaaay riskier for him politically than an SOTU speech would be, but I don’t care. “End the SOTU” isn’t an idea that comes from any feeling, positive or negative, about Trump. It comes from the fact that no matter who’s in the White House the SOTU is garbage and will forever garbage be.
And the president’s speech isn’t even the worst part of it. Look at this dreck.
Our WaPo count is Dems now have 5 different SOTU responses: Kennedy in traditional slot, the Spanish language response, Bernice’s response, Maxine Waters response on BET and Donna Edwards doing one for progressive group.
— Paul Kane (@pkcapitol) January 29, 2018
Five rebuttals, all almost guaranteed to be worse than POTUS’s own address. (I stand corrected, in fact. The only official event in American politics lamer than the SOTU is the SOTU response from the opposition.) There’ll be plenty of this sort of stupid trolling too:
It is an honor to announce that Mayor @CarmenYulinCruz of San Juan, Puerto Rico will join me at the #SOTU. Throughout the crisis in Puerto Rico, Mayor Cruz has shown extraordinary leadership and fearless advocacy for her city.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) January 29, 2018
Cruz is the Puerto Rican official with whom Trump ended up in a war of words after Hurricane Maria. Other Democrats are bringing DREAMers as guests, some are bringing sexual assault victims, Joe Kennedy is bringing a transgender soldier — even Bill Nye, a stupid person’s idea of a science expert, will be there (as the guest of a Republican!). SOTU stuntcasting via the guestlist is an especially feeble way to pander to key constituencies, prove one’s ideological virtue, medal in the Victim Olympics, and generally mug for the cameras on a night when the news media is entirely focused on the Capitol. It’s another reminder that no one really cares what’s being *said* at the event, only about the opportunity to see and be seen at it. The president gets camera time, the tools who elbow each other out of the way along the aisles to shake his hand get camera time, and the dopes bringing Heroes of the #Resistance as guests get camera time. It’s the polar opposite of what a written SOTU would be — a serious no-bells-or-whistles message, all content.
But Trump will probably keep the tradition, partly because he believes that he’s his own best messenger and this is a rare moment when he gets to speak directly to a national audience and partly because, uniquely among presidents, the media’s expectations for him are set so low that he almost can’t help but overperform. To watch non-Fox cable news on any given day, you’d come away thinking at best that Trump is an imbecile and at worst that he’s already in the throes of advanced dementia. Watching him get through an hourlong scripted speech is a small reminder to the public that that’s nonsense. That may be reason enough for him to do it, but the practice should end. Soon. Please.