All day before the State of the Union address, the media and toute de DC were giddy about "the prom": Who’s going to be whose prom date? Who’s going to be prom queen and king? (Most bets were on good lookers Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. John Thune rather than, say, party planners Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Tom Coburn.) Dems paired up with GOPs in order to mingle the seating, a modest nod toward greater civility in wake of the shootings of Rep. Gabby Giffords (her chair standing empty on the floor) and 18 others in Tucson. Even the Republican most likely to pull off a prom-night Carrie, South Carolina Rep. Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson, reportedly agreed to be restrained by sitting between two female Democrats.
But Mitch McConnell, the ol’ sourpuss, wasn’t having any of it. This new-fangled fraternization, he gallantly proffered, was not in the president’s interest: "I think from the president’s point of view, it ends up being distracting, because cameras may be, for example, on…. ‘Who’s sitting with who? My goodness there’s Sen. Gillibrand sitting with Senator Thune!’" Mitch sat out the speech with Sen. John Kyl [R-AZ] like a pair of irritated chaperones.
But the partisan contrast was visible anyway, in the tripartite tableau of Biden, Obama, and Boehner (which I came to see as BOB). It wasn’t just that Boehner refused to applaud every time Biden did, it was the extreme difference in their faces. From the start, when Obama introduced the Speaker as the guy who began by sweeping the floor of his father’s bar, it looked like Boehner’s face–his quivering mouth, his eyes filled with tears, maybe the bulging cheek of a stifled belch–was going to steal the show. He was a Picasso, each of his face’s planes moving in a different direction. If Boehner were an actor trying to express unbearable stress, say the Humphrey Bogart role in The Caine Mutiny, he couldn’t have done a better job.
By comparison, Biden’s face was calm and steady, a smiley rock sitting in sunshine. But then, you had to ask yourself, which of these men has to a crazy caucus to manage? It’s as the Speaker were absorbing all the tension that the party below had cast off for the night.
Even if poor Boehner almost stole the show, the much-vaunted mingling had a huge effect: It made support for Obama look unanimous. Because people who remain silent won’t be heard, when only Democrats applauded, it sounded as if the whole room applauded. And because people sitting won’t be seen in a standing crowd, when only Democrats stood, it looked as if the whole room was standing to cheer the president.
His speech, too, seemed mingled, without highs and lows, mixed so thoroughly that it was flat. Optimistic but flat.
Maybe I feel that way because the White House had forgotten to lower expectations. Howard Dean read the speech beforehand and said, “I’m jubilant about what the president is going to say.”
Still, Republicans have little in the speech to complain about. As Lawrence O’Donnell said, “Republicans should be pleased–it said nothing.”
Most glaringly, it said nothing about gun control. Before the speech, O’Donnell asked, Why not even one paragraph on gun control? Chris Matthews divulged that Obama didn’t want to step on his “competitiveness” message with something so controversial, but that a separate speech on gun control is coming up.
The Republicans had not one, but two chances to grab back the spotlight. The best you could say about Paul Ryan, who presented the official GOP reply, is that he was no Bobby Jindal.
Even better, Michelle Bachmann, who gave the Tea Party reply, was not crazy Michelle Bachmann. She did look a bit weird, like she was wearing too much make-up and not looking directly into the camera (could she have been reading, gasp!, a Teleprompter?!). But she did talk directly to her base, with highs and lows in her voice, which made her fabrications (like the 16,000 new IRS agents who are going to enforce the heath care law) sound just fine to those eager to believe whatever she had to say.
But the big winner on the right was the Tea Party Express. CNN lent it legitimacy by plugging Bachmann’s address with one of their huge electronic billboards that counted down four minutes, two minutes, one minute until the “Tea Party Response.” (Somehow I can’t see CNN announcing, three minutes, two minutes, one minute to “The MoveOn Response.”)
It’s not clear why CNN, and not MSNBC or Fox, ran Bachmann’s address on TV. (The only other place to see it live was on the TPX website.) It must be part of the deal in which CNN and the Tea Party Express have hooked up to co-sponsor a Republican primary debate later this year.
Let’s guess who will benefit the most from that mingling.