Enemy of my Enemy
Published February 2, 2018
Like many, my family and I watched both the president’s State of the Union address and the Democratic response by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III. I thought both speeches, while quite different, were quite good. They each clearly laid out their respective philosophies and positions on issues of national interest.
As a sort of point-counterpoint, I thought they were well and appropriately within the bounds of our great tradition of national debate. However, I was troubled by the spectacle of unyielding opposition and personal disrespect on display at the president’s address.
The State of the Union address is constitutionally required. Article II, Section 3 requires the president to periodically “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.” It is a solemn obligation and it should be a solemn occasion. It is one of the rare instances where one of our co-equal branches of government must perform a duty to another (and, of course, through that body, to the American people as a whole).
It is not meant to be a campaign speech, or to be used to incite partisan reaction, though over the years presidents of both parties have been tempted to use it so. Just as the president has an obligation to deliver it, I believe Congress has an obligation to listen to it – not to agree with it necessarily, but to receive it as part of the proper exercise of their responsibility as the elected representatives of We the People.
Hence, my frustration with those members of Congress who refused to attend the speech. I believe their actions showed disrespect, not just for the president personally, but also for the Constitution and, by extension, for all of us. It also held for me a faint whiff of petulance, of behavior more befitting a child than a legislator.
I also was troubled (though not surprised) by the overly and overtly partisan nature of the congressional reaction to the speech as it was given. By now we are used to seeing different sections of the audience stand and applaud – or not – in response to various points or comments. But rarely have we seen such visible evidence of complete and almost universal rejection of every single element of a president’s address, even to the point of seeming ludicrous. (Media pundits have been having a field day pointing out unobjectionably laudable topics within the speech which received no positive reaction from an entire section of the audience.) Such coordinated action was clearly intended to send a message of disapproval of the president and his policies, but to my mind, its absolutist nature seriously undermined its effectiveness. Again, the whiff of petulance.
What is behind all this? I’m reminded of the ancient proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I presume its corollary would be “The friend of my enemy is my enemy.” I think the visceral opposition to the current president personally among some quarters is so very strong that its transference to his administration, his policies, his goals (“such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”) and just about everything he says or does is and must be for some a matter of unwavering commitment and faith. It is literally as if some people are thinking to themselves, “I cannot abide this president, therefore I will oppose anything and everything he wants, or likes, or values.” I have to believe that some in that audience were thinking exactly that when they refused to applaud a simple reference to our national flag.
Personal distaste and opposing views on policy are nothing new to American politics, and both political parties have much past history to be ashamed of. But these increasingly visible displays of contempt for elements of our constitutional form of government are new, and are a troubling symptom of the growing dysfunctionality of our political system.
While I am not qualified to give political advice, I would strongly urge members of both parties to remember that We the People hired you to do a job. We the People are expecting you to work together for the good of us all. We are watching, and our patience is not unlimited. We need to see bipartisan cooperation. Compromise. Constructive action. Consideration. Comity.
It “takes two to tango.” Failure to adjust behavior in the coming year will jeopardize both parties’ chances in the mid-term elections. Like it or not, all of our elected representatives need to start working together immediately.
Now, get dancing!