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Civility and symbolism at the State of the Union speech

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Jan. 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
January 24, 2011 6:06 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

When President Obama gives his State of the Union address tonight, something will be a little different: Dozens of Republicans and Democrats will be sitting with each other, not with their own party.

It’s a symbolic but nonetheless welcome gesture, one meant to help defuse the highly partisan atmosphere that has often tainted this annual speech and others when the president addresses a joint session of Congress (remember last year when Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., yelled “You lie!” when Obama spoke to Congress about his health care plan).

The president’s speech is usually met with cheers, applause and even standing ovations from members of his own party and stony silence from members of the other. With legislators sitting by party, the division isn’t just apparent, it’s glaring. Only occasionally – say, when the president praises the military or makes some other “Mom and apple pie” comment – does everyone applaud, regardless of party affiliation.

Although members of Congress attending the speech are not given seat assignments, they have by tradition sat with other members of their own party. In the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, in which one of their own was a victim, some legislators have embraced the idea put forward by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that they mix up the seating as a way of turning down the heat.

The public also likes the idea, with 72 percent of those responding to a CNN/Opinion Research poll giving the thumbs up to the plan. But then, polls almost always show the public wants less partisan posturing and more efforts by legislators to “just get along.”

No one should get their hopes up too high that this revised seating arrangement will have any long-term effect on political civility. But it can’t hurt.

And if it accomplishes just one thing – cutting down on the applause that greets just about every presidential pronouncement – then it surely will be greeted with applause from viewers.

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