How fitting that the State of the Union should happen on Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is the night when you overindulge. You pick the things that you most love to do, but feel vaguely guilty about and intend to give up, and you do the heck out of them. President Obama, for instance, delivered a long speech to Congress about their inefficiency, and Congress sat there and made a lot of noise and accomplished nothing.
Note to readers: It was at this point when I discovered Dana Milbank and I were using exactly the same opening, which is the journalistic equivalent of showing up at prom in the same ensemble. So I am doing what I did at my actual prom when this happened: stomping off to the bathroom and trying to ignore the fact that Dana Milbank was at MY prom, in a dress, for the rest of the evening. You can read his take here. Let’s continue.
The trouble with States of the Union can be summed up in the single phrase: seventy applause breaks.
Applause breaks generally indicate that something has happened that you like. Someone has performed impressively. A joke was beyond chuckleworthy. Beyonce just gave you the impression that she had sung the national anthem.
Not at the State of the Union. At the State of the Union, you applaud pointedly. You applaud the way a movie theater laughs. If no one next to you is doing it, you have to be a certain sort of person to pull it off. Your applause is a running commentary, like those voter-approval-o-meters on the bottom of the screen during televised debates.
There are certain times you have to applaud: if any real person who has committed some feat of heroism is mentioned by name, if the troops come up, or if anyone says Comprehensive Immigration Reform, even if it turns out to be Ted Nugent muttering to himself. Everybody is down with immigration reform! And if the president says that Congress needs to stop lurching from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis and start to Do The Things America Needs, Congress must leap to its feet and start wildly applauding, as though to indicate to America that It Has Changed, For Real, This Time. The only tangible impact of this is to make the evening longer and duller for everyone. This, too, is par for the course.
This year’s State of the Union was full of Big Projects To Tackle. It was resolution season all over, and we were going to get in on the ground floor. They say that the best way to accomplish a large number of small projects is to procrastinate on one really big one. Maybe that’s the approach? At this rate, we will get a lot of suggestions on making voting faster, repair some bridges, and make little to no progress on climate change.
That is usually how these things go. The number of laundries I have done, desk reorganizations I have completed, and emails I have answered in order to put off large projects is staggeringly immense. I have this deep and paralyzing fear that next year, when the President again convenes a joint session of this august body (a phrase that always uncomfortably recalls swimsuit calendars) the only thing that will have happened will be that the U.S. will have lurched from one manufactured crisis to another — hey, at least one American manufacturing sector is doing all right! — and the federal government will have compiled long lists of suggestions to offer each election precinct to enhance efficiency.
I hope that bipartisan presidential voting commission comes up with some bang-up suggestions, but I’m dubious. After all, nothing says, “We are serious about making this process quicker and more efficient” like “We are putting the federal government in charge of it.” As we know, “I am forming a bipartisan commission to study the issue” is a loose synonym of “I am not confident that this problem will be resolved in my lifetime.”
The speech was good at first, then acceptable, and then forty minutes in it was just a speech, and then an hour in you began to hope that it would be over because you could see the press scuttling away, but you knew that it wasn’t, because the president had yet to mention any Distinguished American Heroes by name.
This is the night of a thousand pointless handshakes. This is the night of grand resolutions to Change. Numerous of those in the chamber sported green ribbons with white rosettes to commemorate the Newtown massacre.
This is Mardi Gras, when you can indulge in flights of fancy and excess, confident that when the morrow comes, you will stop doing whatever it is for the whole of Lent.
But Lent does not last forever.