Pity the Republican moderates who sat in the chamber last night for President Bush's State of the Union address.
On issue after issue -- Social Security, same-sex marriage, energy, taxes and lawsuit restrictions -- Bush's rhetoric split the House chamber between the throaty roars of Republican conservatives and the stony silence and occasionally outright heckling of the Democrats. That left the small number of GOP moderates sprinkled among the Republicans with a difficult choice: Would they swallow their concerns and cheer for ideas they considered objectionable? Or would they sit on their hands when their president proposed policies they oppose?
In a clear warning to Bush, several of the moderates took the latter course last night, with subtle but unmistakable protests as the president spoke.
When Bush told the crowd that personal Social Security accounts are the best way to improve the retirement system, most Republican lawmakers leapt to their feet. But a small band of moderates -- including Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Mike DeWine (Ohio) -- were slow to join the applause. As others felt the pressure to come to their feet, Snowe, who has said she would "certainly not" support Bush's proposal, remained seated without applauding. She smiled uncomfortably and re-crossed her legs.
When the president made his pitch for restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits, virtually the entire Republican caucus joined a standing ovation. But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who has labeled Bush's proposal "one of the worst bills in Congress," was virtually alone on the Republican side in remaining seated. Spotting Graham in his seat, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) slapped his colleague on the shoulder in a playful reprimand. Graham only smiled.
Others made their own silent statements. When Bush opened his speech with praise for "a free and sovereign Iraq," the Republican side erupted and waved ink-stained fingers, showing solidarity with Iraqis whose fingers were marked when they voted last week. But Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), struggled slowly to his feet and applauded half-heartedly; he has complained about a "whole host of mistakes" made by the administration in Iraq.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ever the maverick, did not disappoint. When Bush repeated his vow to cut the budget deficit in half over five years, McCain, a deficit hawk who complains about "out of control" spending, seemed skeptical. He put down his pen and applauded politely; only after noticing that all those around him were standing did he whisper to his neighbor and climb to his feet. As Bush continued to speak of his fiscal discipline, McCain's applause was perfunctory. When the subject turned to tax reform, McCain and Graham, seated together, were the last to their feet.
Bush's speech was scheduled to last 40 minutes, not including the applause. But the reactions, which filled 10 or 15 minutes more, were in some ways the most important part -- an applause meter for members of Congress to demonstrate to the country how much, or how little, they support the president's objectives.
By that standard, the speech was unusually contentious even by recent standards. Democrats repeatedly called out "No! No! No!" when Bush portrayed the Social Security program as in crisis. Republicans had their own theatrics: the inky fingers arranged by freshman Rep. Bobby Jindal (La.).
And, of course, there was the preening by the Republican Party's potential 2008 presidential candidates. A few of the would-be presidents -- McCain, Chuck Hagel (Neb.), George Allen (Va.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.) -- sat in the back benches. Not so Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who because of their leadership positions were allowed to make two grand entrances, once with other senators and once escorting Bush, shaking the same hands twice. When Frist made his first appearance in the chamber, he let out a "WHOOO!" and performed a little dance step as if he had just taken the field for a sporting event.
Most of these responses were predictable: roars of approval from the GOP benches, scowls and glares from the Democrats. The fence-sitting GOP lawmakers -- whose votes are crucial for much of Bush's agenda -- provided the most genuine drama. On issue after issue, they voted with their bottoms.
When Bush turned to his plans for "temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take," it was the conservatives' turn to voice dissent. About two dozen of the Republican lawmakers remained in their seats as others -- Democrats among them -- stood to applaud. Among the sitters was Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), head of a congressional immigration caucus, who is leading the effort to derail Bush's proposal. His applause was polite, but nothing more.