State of the discord

So, I did my duty and watched the State of the Union address instead of SMASH, and was struck (again) by the sharp divisions that mark our country’s leadership.

President Obama’s speech, like all State of the Union messages, was frequently interrupted by requisite applause and the occasional standing ovation, because all presidents are smart enough to say at least a few things that everyone can agree on.

Unfortunately, those things are few and far between. The president laid out an aggressively hopeful agenda that included a higher minimum wage, gun control legislation, new trade agreements, and tax reform, but most of it doesn’t have a chance of passing. You could tell that from the look on House Speaker John Boehner’s face. Boehner, sitting behind the president with Vice President Joe Biden, did little to disguise his disdain for much of the speech, adopting a pained pose of enduring the mandatory exercise in presidential pomp and Republican rebuttal. While Boehner sat in the chamber, his office was sending out a stream of emails attacking the president’s message.

Earlier, Boehner had told a group of journalists that immigration reform is about the only part of Obama’s agenda that has a chance of passing — and we all know that’s only because Hispanics voted so overwhelmingly for Obama that Republicans are changing their tough-on-immigrants tune in hopes of attracting more Latino voters. That same strategy was evident in the choice of Florida Senator Marco Rubio to provide the official Republican response. Rubio claimed that Republicans only want to protect the middle class and offered a list of objections to some of the president’s rhetoric — and prerecorded a Spanish version of his rebuttal for Spanish-speaking stations.

It’s troubling to see the nation as polarized as it is, though I suppose we should recognize it has been worse. There was a time, 150 years ago, when northern and southern states were prosecuting a bloody war against each other, causing uncounted casualties and untold suffering. No talk of gun control then! And, it was only 50 years ago that the Ku Klux Klan was still a fearsome force and the government had to call out the National Guard in some states to force renegade governors to stand down and allow black students to enter formerly all-white schools.

Today’s perpetual political stalemates are frustrating, and we long for public officials who care more about the nation’s welfare than about whether they get re-elected, but occasions like the State of the Union address are an interesting exercise in the way ideologues can wage a pseudo-civil war.

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