President Obama has been highlighting, with increasing urgency, all the ways in which the "sequester" – the across-the-board cuts to defense and nondefense discretionary spending scheduled to hit at the end of next week – would be bad for average Americans and could do serious damage to the economy.
What he hasn't said, but what's abundantly clear from looking at where the cuts would hit, is that the sequester also would make virtually all of Mr. Obama's second-term legislative agenda, including a few items that have Republican support, essentially dead on arrival.
At an event Tuesday with first responders whose jobs could be eliminated by the sequester, Obama spelled out the consequences of allowing the cuts to take effect: "This is not an abstraction," he said. "People will lose their jobs."
That's true. And many of those job reductions are poised to hit in areas where Obama would actually need an increase in federal spending and activity in order to enact the legislative agenda outlined in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses.
Consider immigration reform, one of Obama's top legislative priorities. With a bipartisan group of senators currently working on a bill – and with the Republican Party looking for new ways to reach out to Hispanic voters – it appears to have a decent chance of passing. But many conservatives have made clear that they will only support a comprehensive reform bill if it makes securing the border a precondition of giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
And beefing up border security could become all but impossible if the sequester takes effect – since it will force big cuts in the number of border patrol agents. Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the sequester will lead to the elimination of 5,000 agents over the next year (out of a total of 17,500). Noting that she'd just spent the previous day testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on immigration reform – where she was repeatedly urged by Republicans to do more on border security – Secretary Napolitano joked that she felt las if she was having "a little bit of an out-of-body experience."
Then there's gun control, another top issue for Obama. The gun-control measure that appears to have the most bipartisan support right now is to make background checks mandatory for all gun purchases, including at gun shows. That proposal wins near-universal support from the public, according to polling.
But the sequester could make any proposed expansion of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which conducts criminal background checks on prospective gun buyers, extremely difficult. Why? The NICS is operated by the FBI, and sequestration would hit the FBI directly, reducing the number of agents – as well as the number of agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and US attorneys – by an estimated 3,700. According to one report, the cuts could cripple even the current, nonuniversal background-check system by making the checks take longer, making them unavailable on weekends (when most gun shows take place), and allowing more people to slip through the cracks. Likewise, the reduction in US attorneys and ATF agents could make any proposal to crack down harder on gun crime – another measure often put forward by Republicans as a way to combat gun violence – a moot point.
Needless to say, other items on the president's agenda that face even stiffer political head winds, looked at in the context of the sequester, seem even more improbable. Universal preschool? Probably a pipe dream, given that 15,000 teachers and aides would lose their jobs as a result of the sequester – which, incidentally, would also cut funding for Head Start, the nation's current and popular public preschool program. Climate change? It's hard to see how that goes anywhere, given that the sequester would slash funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, and would also cut funding to that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraion – which could affect the nation's ability to accurately predict major weather events like hurricanes.
Of course, there's always the chance that Congress could find a way to restore funding to some of these areas after the sequester hits. But given their current track record, we wouldn't count on it. Which means that the sequester could wind up dictating – in a major way – how much, or more accurately how little, of Obama's top priorities ever become law.
We ask that question because the senior senator from Kentucky put up his first campaign ad today and it goes after Ms. Judd and three other possible Democratic challengers pretty hard. She’s not the only person mentioned, but she gets more than her share of the three-minute spot, and it ends with her speaking. Not that it’s putting her words in a positive light, of course.
The ad is called “Obama’s Kentucky Candidate,” and it’s pretty clever. The premise is that the president is holding some sort of town hall meeting to pick Senator McConnell’s opponent, and he goes from one person to the next, trying to find the chosen one. The video editing is clever and the whole thing looks quite real.
First up is Ed Marksberry, a former congressional candidate depicted by the ad as a yokel. Then there’s former US Ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun, shown marching in full top-hatted regalia in some sort of European parade. “He’s looking very sharp,” says Obama in a voice-over cut from a real town hall.
Then Obama calls on “the young lady with the pink, white blouse right there.... Wait until the microphone comes up. Introduce yourself.”
Next thing you know, there’s Judd standing at the podium at last year’s Democratic convention, saying, “From the Volunteer State, I proudly stand to nominate ...”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” goes Obama in the reaction shot, cut to make it appear as if he disapproves. In case you missed the subtlety there, Tennessee is the Volunteer State. That’s where Judd has been living with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Dario Franchitti. She was a Democratic National Convention delegate from Tennessee, not from Kentucky. The ad goes on to make that abundantly clear, alternating shots of her saying “Tennessee is home” with appearances from another possible candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, as well as a host of popular state Democrats saying they won’t run.
After all, she is indeed a Hollywood liberal, according to her own grandmother. The Tennessee thing is going to be a big problem if she runs – which by the way she hasn’t said she’s doing. She’s just honored by the attention, and considering it, and so forth.
But McConnell does not poll well in his own state at the moment, perhaps because of his role on the national stage. A recent Courier-Journal Bluegrass poll found that only 17 percent of the state’s voters said they would be sure to support him. Thirty-four percent said they planned to oppose him. Forty-four percent said they were waiting to see who his opponent will be before deciding.
It’s possible that leaves an opening for Judd.
“It’s safe to say that if she ran, she could put in big money, raise a lot more and perhaps put McConnell under unprecedented scrutiny at a time when he’s not all that popular,” writes Al Cross, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a former Courier-Journal political writer, in a recent opinion piece.
A just-released poll puts McConnell ahead of Judd by 49 to 40 percent in a head-to-head matchup. The survey was taken by Harper Polling in conjunction with RunSwitch Public Relations, a firm founded by a former McConnell aide.
“My takeaways from the survey are that Senator McConnell is in solid shape among Republicans and general election voters, and that Ashley Judd, for someone who has never run for office, already has a tough hold out of which to climb regarding her own image,” said RunSwitch founding partner Scott Jennings in a statement upon the poll release.
That’s one way to look at it. And it’s true the poll found that voters reacted negatively when told Judd has been living in Tennessee, for instance. But if you were minority leader of the US Senate, someone striking key fiscal deals with the White House, wouldn’t you think you could lead the costar of “Tooth Fairy” by more than that?
“Tennessee is my home!” are the last words on the new McConnell ad. If she does run, that’s a phrase that’s going to be drilled into every potential voter in the Bluegrass State approximately a zillion times prior to Election Day.
Are specific gun-control measures beginning to build momentum in Congress? Key lawmakers in recent comments have indicated that’s the case. For instance, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona on Sunday said many senators are lining up behind a bipartisan plan whose centerpiece is an expansion of background checks on gun purchasers.
Background checks have long been seen as a sweet spot in the gun debate that could draw both Republican and Democratic votes, but McCain’s tacit endorsement is still a “key moment,” writes liberal-leaning Greg Sargent in his Plum Line Washington Post blog.
The bipartisan group that’s pulling the plan together includes Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key pro-gun Democrat, and conservative GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mr. Sargent notes. It would include expanded sharing of data on mental illness and likely have some sort of provision ensuring that the checks don’t lead to a national registry of gun owners.
“Having Coburn and Manchin bless such a proposal would give it a major boost, even among GOP lawmakers inclined to robotically do whatever the NRA [National Rifle Association] tells them to do,” he writes.
This doesn’t mean the plan is tied up with ribbon and a bow; another member of the bipartisan effort, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, added on Sunday that the group has made good progress but still has some hard issues to resolve.
“Guns [are] a very difficult issue,” said Senator Schumer on CNN’s "State of the Union."
Asked whether a ban on assault weapons would be included in the Senate’s package, Schumer side-stepped the issue. He noted that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California has introduced legislation to prohibit such military-style firearms and said that her bill will get a vote on the Senate floor.
“Whether it’s part of our bill, we’ve been focusing on universal background checks, where I think there’s a greater chance to come to a bipartisan agreement,” said Schumer.
(Currently, federal law requires background checks only for customers of federally licensed firearm dealers. They aren’t required for private transactions, many of which occur at gun shows. Some states have more stringent check requirements of their own.)
Another gun provision the Senate might be able to pass is a new federal law against firearms trafficking. In essence, this would give prosecutors another way to go after those who legally purchase guns and then pass them to others who use them to commit crimes.
It’s also possible the Senate will at least seriously consider proposals to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey has introduced legislation that would ban any magazine that holds more than 10 rounds.
“There is no place in our communities for military-style supersized magazines like those used inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Aurora, and in Tucson,” said Senator Lautenberg last month when he introduced the bill.
It’s important to remember that the Senate is but the first hurdle for any new gun curbs. They’d have to pass the GOP-controlled House, as well, where it’s less clear there’s any consensus for new measures.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, a key player in the issue on the Senate side, said over the weekend that it is his understanding that the House will just wait to see what the Senate does, and then decide upon its plan of action.
“They feel if we’re able to do something there might be a chance. If we’re unable, frankly, they’re not going to try anything at all. I think that’s a political reality,” Senator Leahy told NPR's "Weekend Edition" on Saturday.
Did Senate Republicans win a political victory with their filibuster (though they've declined to call it that) of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel? Or will it prove to be a Pyrrhic one?
On the one hand, Republicans are again putting the White House on notice that, despite their minority status, they still have the power to block pretty much any part of President Obama's agenda – including even his cabinet nominees – and that Democrats are going to have to work with them, if they want to get anything done.
On the other hand, Republicans have opened themselves up to charges of taking "obstruction" to new heights, with an unprecedented filibuster of a cabinet nominee, who happens to be a decorated Vietnam veteran and a Republican. Republicans have done this, Democrats will argue, because they view Mr. Hagel as a traitor to his party for turning against the Iraq War (an issue on which the majority of Americans side with Hagel, according to polls).
More to the point, this may prove to be just the incentive Democrats need when it comes to passing meaningful filibuster reform – as opposed to the watered-down measure passed last month – in order to put more constraints on the power of the minority.
In hindsight, it's telling that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) decided to go ahead with the cloture vote, knowing he probably didn't have the 60 votes needed to end debate and proceed to an up-or-down vote on Hagel's nomination. Reid could have just delayed the matter, while Democrats tried to get one more Republican to agree to cloture. But instead he forced the other side to go through with their filibuster threat.
As Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas theorized later: "The White House and the majority leader were determined to have this vote in order to try to get a story in the newspaper, one that misrepresents the nature of the objection on [the Republican] side."
Indeed, Senator Reid immediately charged those Republicans blocking Hagel's nomination with jeopardizing the nation's security in order to please their base. "Watching Republicans with otherwise distinguished records on national security place their desire to please the tea party ahead of doing the right thing for our troops is one of the saddest spectacles I have witnessed in my 27 years in the Senate," Reid said on the floor Thursday night.
But if Democrats do succeed in, as Senator Cornyn put it, "misrepresent[ing] the nature of the objection," that will also be because Republicans haven't put forward anything close to a unified, coherent argument as to why they're blocking Hagel's nomination.
For some, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, it isn't about Hagel at all, but an attempt to get more information from the White House on the terror attack in Benghazi. For others, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, it's about demanding more financial disclosure from Hagel.
For still others, it seems more like a personal vendetta. Arizona Sen. John McCain's much-replayed comments to Fox News Thursday almost certainly won't be helpful to the Republican cause. "There’s a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly," McCain told host Neil Cavuto. "At one point, he said [Bush] was the worst president since Herbert Hoover, said that the surge was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War, which is nonsense – and he was very anti his own party and people. People don’t forget that."
The fact that enough Republicans have already publicly said they'll vote in favor of cloture when the Senate reconvenes, thereby allowing Hagel to be confirmed – since there are already more than 50 senators in the "yea" column – makes Thursday's filibuster seem even more petty and political. The only saving grace for the GOP is that this fight is still an inside-the-Beltway issue that the majority of voters aren't likely to be following all that closely. (A Quinnipiac poll from last week found that more than two-thirds of Americans "haven't heard enough" about Hagel to have either a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him.)
Given everything else White House officials are focused on these days, they may choose to just let the matter quietly resolve itself 10 days from now. But if they decide to go on offense – in an effort, perhaps, to salvage Hagel's reputation – it's not hard to see how they could turn this matter against Republicans.
Is it more likely today that Geraldo Rivera will run for US Senate in New Jersey? We ask that because Thursday Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey announced his retirement, and that means Geraldo would be competing for an open seat in 2014. In most circumstances open seat elections are more competitive than races which pit incumbents versus challengers. So it’s possible that the Garden State’s mustachioed muckraker has a gleam in his eye and more bounce in his handlebars this morning.
Or maybe not. We’ll get to that scenario in a minute.
First, were you even aware that Geraldo is thinking about tossing his bluster into the political arena? It’s true – several weeks ago on his mid-day radio show he announced that he’d been in touch with New Jersey Republicans and was contemplating a run for Senator Lautenberg’s seat.
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“Fasten your seat belts,” he said.
Since then, he’s only sounded more serious about a run. He outlined some of his political views in a Fox News opinion article and it’s a list that pretty much makes him sound like a thinner Chris Christie. That means he’s a moderate Republican with a law-and-order edge.
We think that attaching himself to New Jersey Governor Christie’s hip would be his best electoral approach. Christie is perhaps the most popular governor in the country and Rivera, if he runs, would certainly love a close association.
“Newark Mayor Corey Booker backhands Chris Christi by joining weight watchers to get to his ‘campaign weight’. I’m already fighting weight,” tweeted Rivera.
And of course Rivera is using his status as a media star to continue to drop hints about a race, either to ramp up real interest, or goose ratings. You decide.
“When you get serious about being a candidate ... you’ve got to file a committee and go raise money,” said Mr. Rove.
Lautenberg’s impending retirement removes one formidable rival. Lautenberg, the only World War II veteran now in the Senate, decided to call it quits rather than seek a sixth term.
But Mayor Booker is young, media-friendly, and kind of an action politician – he’s saved a neighbor from a burning house, for instance. That means he might match up well with Rivera. Christie’s success notwithstanding, New Jersey is a pretty blue state.
And yesterday there was other news that might have put a droop in Rivera’s political attitude. According to at least one poll he’s not exactly lighting Garden State voters on fire.
The Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press survey found that 65 percent of respondents said they would vote against Rivera. Only 26 percent said they would be somewhat or very likely to vote for him.
Even among Republicans, he isn’t a popular choice. Forty-eight percent of GOP respondents were negative on his candidacy, and 44 percent were positive.
So if Geraldo really is going to run, he’ll have to fire up his Harley and start traveling around the state to build support. Otherwise, his political future may turn out to be as empty as the famous Al Capone vault he opened on national TV.
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One of the arguments put forward by conservatives opposed to immigration reform is that it would do little to help the GOP win much in the way of Hispanic votes – but would provide Democrats with a huge new pool of eligible, left-leaning voters who could keep them in power for years to come.
The latest Republican to make this case is Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who writes in a Wednesday op-ed in Politico: "Immigration is the field Democrats want to lure Republicans to play on. Why? Because Democrats know they'll win. Democrats have done the math and realize that legalization inevitably would give them millions of votes, meaning more victories in congressional and presidential elections."
But in fact, there's compelling evidence that it may be Republicans who have the most to gain, politically, from immigration reform – while Democrats actually have little to gain and could wind up with sizable electoral losses. According to an analysis in The Georgetown Public Policy Review, even if Democrats had improved their margins among Hispanics in the 2012 election by double digits, it would have yielded them very little in the way of additional House seats. But a small shift in the Hispanic vote toward Republicans would have moved a significant number of seats into the GOP column.
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Assuming a 42 percent turnout rate among Hispanics (an estimate, since no reliable data exist on Hispanic turnout), the report finds that a 10-percentage-point shift in Hispanic support toward Democrats would have netted that party only one additional House seat. A 20-point shift would have yielded Democrats only six new seats.
But for Republicans, it's an entirely different story: A five-percentage-point shift in the Hispanic vote toward the GOP would have given the party five additional House seats; a 10-point shift would have turned 12 seats to the GOP; and a 16-point shift would have given Republicans 21 additional seats.
There are few competitive congressional districts to begin with (already, looking ahead to 2014, analysts are estimating no more than 70 competitive districts – a number that will almost certainly come down as the election draws nearer). So a shift of five, 12, or 21 seats is nothing to sneeze at. Those numbers would drop somewhat with a lower turnout rate, but the overall trend – namely, that there are far greater opportunities for Republicans to make gains than for Democrats – remains the same.
As the report concludes: "These figures should put Democratic strategists on edge.... Democratic political operators must know that a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform might derail any attempt to retake the House if it allows the GOP to gain even a little ground with Hispanics."
Individual Republican lawmakers may still be driven more by fear of facing a primary opponent if they move to the center on immigration reform. But an analysis like this might prove a strong political incentive. If passage of an immigration bill leads to even small gains in support for the GOP among Hispanics, it could be the key factor that helps the party retain – or even expand – its majority in the House.
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Talk about turning water into wine.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – whose awkward sip of water in the middle of his State of the Union response has become an Internet sensation – has moved quickly to show he's in on the joke. In a round of interviews on the network morning shows, Senator Rubio, who was recently lauded as the "Republican savior" on the cover of Time magazine, displayed the kind of self-deprecating humor and relatability that voters often appreciate in politicians.
"I needed water, what am I gonna do?" Rubio said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Wednesday, as he good-naturedly took another big swig for the cameras. "You know, it happens. God has a funny way of reminding us we're human."
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Rubio's official response to President Obama's speech had been seen as an audition of sorts, with the young, Hispanic senator poised to become the new face of the Republican Party. But in many ways it wound up testing an even more important skill that all presidential aspirants must master: damage control.
"Water-gate," as the incident was inevitably dubbed, lasted only a second or two. If you somehow missed it, here's what happened: a visibly sweating Rubio, in the middle of delivering his response, suddenly ducked down almost out of the camera frame, grabbed a water bottle, and took a hasty sip. He then continued on with his speech, but at that point the damage was done.
It was a made-for-Twitter moment, instantly generating an explosion of snarky comments (we had no idea there could be so many water-related puns). For better or worse, depending on your point of view, it wound up entirely overshadowing the rest of Rubio's remarks – and to some extent even the president's.
Still, there are some lessons to be learned from the matter:
1. As had been widely noted in advance of Rubio's speech, giving the official response to the State of the Union just may be the hardest political gig out there. The speaker has no audience and no podium. He must speak directly, and continuously, into the camera, and somehow make it look natural. We thought Rubio came across as pretty conversational, if not always completely comfortable. Talking openly about his own humble roots and lack of wealth, in the context of advocating basic Republican planks such as smaller government and lower taxes, he probably would have gotten decent reviews had "water-gate" not happened. Of course, now that's water under the bridge (sorry – we couldn't resist!).
2. The glare of the spotlight is not kind – to anyone. Rubio has had a meteoric rise in Washington, and is already seen by many as the unofficial frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But that kind of star power brings a whole new level of scrutiny, which few politicians can withstand without losing at least some of their original shine. It's not necessarily an advantage to become so highly visible so early in the cycle, given that the first primary contests are still three years away. When you're in that position, every little thing – even a sip of water – can unexpectedly turn into a fire that needs dousing (ok, ok, no more puns!).
3. Staffing matters. It's understandable that Rubio's staffers never imagined he'd do something as odd as crouch down to grab a bottle of water in the middle of delivering his speech, but a good staff should be prepared for any contingency. In hindsight, Rubio should have had water pre-positioned within easy reach. On the other hand, his team has been fast making up for the lapse. Immediately after the speech, Rubio tweeted out a picture of the infamous Poland Spring water bottle, with the hashtag #GOPResponse. And he continued to joke about it in a round of high-profile TV interviews Wednesday.
In the end, it was not the roll-out that Rubio likely envisioned for himself. The substance of his remarks wound up overlooked, and the most lasting impression he may have left was one of nerves. But there are worse things in politics than coming across as occasionally-less-than-smooth (at least he didn't pull a Rick Perry, and blank out!). In the end, if this winds up being the biggest gaffe of Rubio's political career, he can count himself lucky.
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The audience will include more than 30 Americans touched by gun violence and several undocumented immigrants – a human face on two of the most significant legislative challenges Mr. Obama will face in the coming year.
It’s typical that lawmakers extend their single guest ticket to a representative of one of their cherished causes or a constituent with special relevance to the night’s proceedings.
For instance, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio – who gets extra tickets for his high rank – has a guest list featuring two students and one principal from a Catholic school – an institution dear to him – and a former batboy from the Cincinnati Reds with an inspirational story, among others.
More than two dozen Democratic lawmakers, however, banded together to give their coveted tickets to a bloc of gun-violence victims – a counterweight to the widely discussed choice of Rep. Steve Stockman (R), of Texas, to invite rock star and gun rights advocate Ted Nugent. The Democratic effort was spearheaded by Rep. James Langevin (D) of Rhode Island, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a firearms accident as a young police recruit.
Mr. Langevin invited Jim Tyrell of Warwick, R.I., whose sister Debbie was murdered during a robbery of her convenience store in 2004. Mr. Tyrell made his first-ever trip to the nation’s capital to “be a small part of gun control on behalf of my sister,” he said.
When Obama speaks to those who have been touched by gun violence, Tyrell said he hopes the president “looks at all these people’s lives and says, ‘That doesn’t have to happen to another person. Let’s do something about gun control now. The violence out there is outrageous.' ”
Tyrell was part of an emotional news conference inside the Capitol on Tuesday, where he joined a dozen lawmakers and some three dozen other individuals affected by gun violence who will be in the audience Tuesday night, including the parents of a girl killed in Newtown, Conn., the family of a girl killed in Chicago only days after performing in Obama’s inaugural parade, and the mother of a student killed in the Virginia Tech shooting.
For Julieta Garibay, an advocate and undocumented immigrant, being able to sit before the president reminded her of just how far those without legal status have come.
Ms. Garibay, who will be the guest of Rep. Marc Veasey (D) of Texas, was talking to a friend hours before the speech and recalled joining the movement in support of the DREAM Act – which would allow the children of undocumented immigrants a special path to legal status – eight years ago, “when it was very scary to even share my story because it wasn’t normal to say ‘I’m undocumented and unafraid,’ ” Garibay says. “And [now] I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to be sitting next to the very people who vote and who make immigration reform possible.’”
Garibay is too old to qualify for the deferred action program announced by Obama last summer, which offers a two-year stay of deportation and the ability to obtain a work permit, and so remains in immigration limbo.
But as someone who came to America 20 years ago as a youth, she can hardly believe she’s carrying the DREAMer banner all the way into Congress.
“It feels like such a huge responsibility,” she says. “It’s going to be an unforgettable.”
Binding the two groups together is the hopeful feeling that Obama will help usher through Congress legislation in support of their respective causes.
“Please,” said Ms. Nottingham, addressing both the president and members of Congress, “don’t let us down.”
Let's be honest: The State of the Union – the speech, not the condition of the nation – is usually pretty dull.
For all the hype that typically surrounds the president's annual address to Congress, the dirty little secret among most political reporters is that the speech itself is often a snoozer. Too long, too laden with nods to various interest groups, containing too little that's really new or ever likely to become law. And President Obama's address Tuesday night will probably be no different.
In general, State of the Union addresses are remembered for being "laundry lists" rather than memorable or inspiring bits of oratory. And because this will be Mr. Obama's fourth official State of the Union address (and his fifth speech before a joint session of Congress), it's pretty unlikely that we're going to hear much in the way of brand-new policy proposals that we haven't already heard about, in one form or another. Not to mention the fact that most of what he puts forward will have little chance of actually getting through the Republican-led House, anyway.
Last weekend, on "Fox News Sunday's Panel Plus," left-leaning analyst Juan Williams, in previewing the speech, said: "I think this has to be a bolder speech than we're accustomed to in terms of formal addresses the president has made to the Congress." He then confessed: "I don't really remember the first four. What I remember is things like people yelling out, 'You lie!' or [US Supreme Court Justice] Sam Alito mouthing, 'That's not true.' I remember all that. But I don't remember [what Obama said]."
If you're in the same boat as Mr. Williams – and we're guessing most people are – it's really not your fault. The speeches just weren't that memorable. Here's a quick sampling of some of the reviews of Obama's previous State of the Union addresses:
- In 2010, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote: "Obama was supposed to set a 'new tone' in Washington tonight. Don't think he meant the tone to sound like snoring."
- In 2011, Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," proclaimed it "boring all around," adding: "I've never seen an audience as flat or a president as flat as this."
- In 2012, Fox News's Brit Hume called Obama's speech "boring," and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: "What Obama offered the nation Tuesday night was pudding without a theme."
Of course, those were all Republican critics who were, obviously, not Obama fans to begin with. But while left-leaning analysts and members of the mainstream media have tended to be somewhat less blunt in their critiques, many of them also clearly found Obama's previous State of the Unions lacking in interest and excitement (in other words, they thought the speeches were boring, too):
- In 2010, Obama's own Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, was famously caught appearing to nod off during the speech. Afterwards, The Atlantic's Josh Green wrote: "I don't see this being any kind of pivot point, catalyzing event, or even a speech that will have a lasting impact." Jonathan Chait, then writing for The New Republic, commented: "I wondered if his budget freeze had already claimed the entire White House speechwriting staff."
- In 2011, NBC's David Gregory reported the speech "felt flat," adding: "The reaction was polite, but hardly rousing." Melinda Henneberger, then at Politics Daily, said the speech "reminded us that everyone needs an editor."
- In 2012, comedian Jon Stewart ribbed Obama for mentioning the killing of Osama bin Laden at the start of the speech ("You opened with 'I killed bin Laden'? Does Rick Springfield open with 'Jessie's Girl'?") and offered some sympathy for a spilled milk joke that fell painfully flat: "As someone who does comedy for a living: been there."
In 2012, the University of Minnesota conducted an analysis of the past 70 State of the Union addresses and found that Obama's three speeches were all measurably simpler in their use of language, with shorter sentences and more monosyllabic words, than those of any other modern president – coming in at an eighth-grade reading comprehension level.
Sometimes, simple language can be compelling. Just not, it seems, when it comes to State of the Union addresses.
Of course, this year may be different – if nothing else, we'll have rocker (and gun rights advocate) Ted Nugent sitting in the audience to liven things up. But we're not exactly holding out hope.
Representative Stockman invited Mr. Nugent and gave him a ticket to sit in the gallery overlooking the House chamber. The Texas lawmaker, who recently made headlines by threatening to file articles of impeachment against President Obama over executive actions on gun control, said he was excited to have a “patriot” like the Nuge as his guest.
“After the address I’m sure Ted will have plenty to say,” said Stockman.
Yes, yes he will. That’s certain. But beyond that we have to ask: Is this a good idea?
After all, Nugent will be sitting in the same room with children from Sandy Hook Elementary and other victims of gun violence. He’ll also be sitting in the same room with Mr. Obama. You’ll remember that last spring several members of the Secret Service visited Nugent for a chat after he said that if Obama were to be reelected “I will either be dead or in jail.” The agents came away convinced that Nugent was a bigger threat to grammar and decorum than to the president, but still.
Advocates of gun control claim to be gleeful about the forthcoming Nugent sighting. They figure he’ll be outrageous enough to frighten a large swath of the viewing public. After all, this is a guy who markets his own brand of ammunition, and in the past he has told both Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, in explicit terms, what they should do with his machine guns. He talks about the administration’s “communist-Mao-Che” agenda. All of his clothing appears to be camo.
Liberal pundit Greg Sargent goes further, saying that Nugent’s appearance only emphasizes The Crazy, the hard right aspect of the GOP that party leaders such as Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have complained turns off moderate voters.
“If I were the GOP leadership, the prospect of further comments from Nugent after the speech would have me a bit worried,” writes Mr. Sargent.
We’ll admit that at times it sounds as if Nugent’s verbs are only faintly acquainted with their subjects, and his sentences are delivered with enough force to unfurl a thousand flags. But the left should keep this in mind: The Nuge is a professional performer. Part of his persona is an act. When he wants to, he can dial it down and sound coherent. And he represents a widespread hunting-oriented point of view.
He did a number on gun-control advocate/talk show host Piers Morgan last week, for instance. Invited onto Mr. Morgan’s show as part of its continuing gun coverage, Nugent blasted the veteran British journalist, saying, “would you leave us the [expletive] alone!”
“I think you’re obsessed with guns,” Nugent told Morgan during an interview in a gun shop. “Ninety-nine point nine nine percent of the gun owners of America are wonderful people that you are hanging around with today. Perfectly safe. Perfectly harmless. Wonderful, loving, giving, generous, caring people.”
OK, it did sound at one point as if Nugent called Morgan “Pierce,” and he talked so fast that Morgan needed a crowbar to get a word in edgewise. But “felony recidivism” rolled off Nuge’s tongue like butter. He’s more articulate than many think.
Also, he will not be armed Tuesday night. Just in case you were wondering.
“I will go in at least 20 pounds lighter than I normally walk,” he told The New York Times on Monday. “I will be going in sans the hardware store on my belt. I live a well-armed life, and I’ve got to demilitarize before I go.”