Commentary

Time to End State of the Union Rebuttal

Tom Kilgannon
By Tom Kilgannon | February 6, 2019 | 3:23 PM EST

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 5: U.S. President Donald Trump, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence looking on, delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. (left) (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images) and Stacey Abrams gives the SOTU rebuttal. (right) (Screenshot)

It’s time to end the practice of having a formal response to the President’s State of the Union address. It’s pointless, petty and uninspired. It matters not whether the respondent is Stacy Abrams or Marco Rubio, the evening belongs to the president. It is his time to inform the Congress and the public about the challenges we face, offer solutions, and inspire Americans toward a common purpose. When the rival party – without consideration of, or reflection on – what the President said, offers an immediate voice of opposition, that only perpetuates distrust and discord in our political life.

Political parties have ample opportunity to highlight their differences at party conventions, during presidential debates, or in endless campaigns. The State of the Union (SOTU) address, however, can – and should be – a unifying event. The eyes of the world are on the House chamber where it takes place, and that’s when elected leaders should tune out their campaign advisors and turn off their Twitter accounts.

The purpose of the event is for the president to speak and the Congress to listen. Such was the intent of the Framers when they outlined in the Constitution a provision that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Even in this year’s invitation, in the form of H. Con. Res. 9, Congress asked Mr. Trump to Capitol Hill “for the purpose of receiving such communication as the President of the United States shall be pleased to make to them.” (emphasis added).  

But, sadly, the State of the Union has become yet another tool of division – something President Trump offered to change with an appeal for unity. He asked members of both parties to “break decades of political stalemate,” to build a stronger country. “We can bridge old divides,” Trump said, and “heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.”

Despite his pleas, this year’s speech fell to partisan rancor, political protest and juvenile theatrics. At least a half dozen members reportedly boycotted the speech. Rep. Maxine Waters urged Americans to “turn the television off,” insisting the leader of our country is “not worthy of being listened to.” Other members of Congress were accompanied by union bosses, federal workers, or illegal immigrants for the purpose of visible protest. Others were adorned in white.  

Such antics are legitimized when the two political parties structure the State of the Union as an adversarial process – another “us against them” exercise. It’s been that way since 1966, when Gerald Ford and Everett Dirksen, the House and Senate minority leaders, gave the first televised response to a State of the Union address. In fairness, Dirksen and Ford could not afford to lose more ground to President Lyndon Johnson, who, the year before, moved the speech from its traditional afternoon delivery to prime-time and a massive television audience. Their response aired five days, rather than five minutes, after the president spoke.      

Over the years, the opposition has choreographed unmemorable rebuttals from rising stars or washed out party elders who have tried various formats to include speaking to a television camera or to a live audience. They’ve used multiple speakers and produced cheesy infomercials. In recent years, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida (2013) and Tim Kaine of Virginia (2006) and then-Governors Bobby Jindal (Louisiana-2009) and Kathleen Sebelius (Kansas-2008) have given responses with less-than-flattering reaction.

But more importantly, the now-obligatory response perpetuates our divisions as a nation.  In selecting Stacey Abrams, Democrats embrace defiance as Abrams, who was defeated in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, never fully conceded. In addition to Abrams, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will offer resistance in a Spanish-language response. If that’s not enough, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will give his own response to the SOTU as will Jill Stein on behalf of the Green Party.  

The availability of instant communication, coupled with the media’s thirst for political blood sport, means there is no need for an official response. There are plenty of avenues available to members of Congress who wish to give a reaction to the SOTU. Media from across the country and around the world assemble in the Rotunda just outside the House floor. A press conference the following morning, after an evening of thoughtful reflection would be more appropriate. A written rebuttal might offer specific alternatives to policy initiatives.

The official response to the State of the Union is an idea whose time has come and gone. Let’s be done with it.  

Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense.

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