I did not watch the President's State of the Union Address. I hardly every watch such things, especially if I intend to write about them. What would be the point?
The President's boys and girls spend the previous week leaking the main talking points to the press to make sure that no one fails to get in lockstep with the agenda. This year they made sure to tell us that the President was fed up with the roadblocks thrown up by Congressional Republicans to block the President's progress toward the brighter future we all want. From now on, it is no more mister nice guy, and he intends to rule by executive fiat.
Perhaps I did not read enough top level commentators--though I certainly glanced at more than a few--but I have not seen anyone raise the most necessary--and obvious--question, namely, what practical effects does the President's team think this virtual declaration of dictatorship will have.
If we had a rational and educated press corps, they would make the following calculations:
First, the purpose of political parties is to gain power by winning elections. Once in power, they have greater opportunities to enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the taxpayer. If there is another purpose to democratic elections, no one I know of has ever demonstrated it.
Second, in a so-called democracy whatever is sauce for the liberal goose is sauce for the conservative gander. Thus, if liberals are seeking the progress and advancement of the American people, then so are conservatives. Alternatively, if conservatives win elections by being purely cynical opportunists, then either democracy does not work or else liberals must be using similar tactics.
Third, When one party wins the White House and Senate by advocating one set of programs or interests but the other holds the House of Representatives by appealing to a slightly different set of interests, the party of greater power has to find ways of securing votes from the minority party. This requires tact, compromise, and corruption of the sort that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan excelled in. Calling names and issuing threats and what the Kingfish used to call "ultimatoes" is exactly the wrong tactic. Obama needs to treat Boehner and the boys to a midnight drink and over the third round, he can explain what is in it for them and their districts if they collaborate on one or two key issues. When Clinton famously invited Newt over for such a conversation, he shrewdly pointed out that he and Gingrich were a lot alike. I don't think Clinton was speaking so much of their joint affection for broads and boodle as of their unprincipled commitment to keeping their eyes on the main chance.
To conclude: Everyone by now knows what the point of a lame duck President's public addresses: They are advertisements for himself and for the programs he still thinks he can make headway on. If he is a Republican, the advertisements must be drafted to go over the heads of the press corps and reach Republican voters, but if he is a Democrat he only needs to hand out the talking points and his lackeys will do the rest. In this context, then, the President knows the press will go along with his little coup and support him to the hilt, but--and this is the only serious question on the table--what is in it for the Republicans who are offered either contemptuous condemnation if they refuse to go along and nothing in return if they betray the interests and hopes of their constituents.
Are Boehner and the boys that stupid and servile? Perhaps, but servile Republican voters may be too disgusted to go along. If Republican congressmen do capitulate without angering the voters, then we can dispense with the nonsense of State of the Union Addresses and the fictions of representative government and the free press.
As cynical as I have always been about the Republican electorate, I don't think they are quite ready to respond to Obama's initiatives with the cry of "Hail, Caesar." If they do not go along, then the President's scriptwriters have done him and his party a major disservice. It is not that any of this matters very much in a country where many of our neighbors actually voted for this disgrace to the disgraceful name of politician, but so long as we are going to say anything about politics, let us at least be clear about what the issues are.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.