State of the Union speeches tend to go downhill after everyone sits down. There's the initial excitement when the House Sergeant at Arms dramatically announces the president's entrance. But after the inevitable pronouncement that the state of the union is in fact "strong," these speeches tend to degenerate into boring substance.
That was pretty much the case with last night's address by President Obama, but I found three things of interest.
First, he reset the policy table. After strategically ignoring the deficit in his inaugural address, he explicitly told the Republicans he would not allow it to dominate the policy debate in the next four years. Good for him. I've always thought that the deficit, while important, isn't even among the top five issues we need to address as a nation.
In fact, it was galling that the Republicans made it such a dominant issue given that they created the current deficit themselves. They followed President George W. Bush in starting two wars while cutting taxes at the same time, turning Bill Clinton's surpluses into deep deficits overnight.
The GOP whining about the deficit was like a kid who kills both parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan. Moreover, the Republicans have no intention of solving the deficit problem anyway. What they want is constant deficits so that they can get what they are really after -- a shrinking government that doesn't challenge corporate profits.
But the president finally realized, after four of these addresses, that he gets to set the agenda and it will be about creating a new economy, attacking climate change, improving education, and stemming the outrageous gun violence that has become all too common. Good.
Second, the president showed passion on gun control. In a speech that was otherwise classic cool Obama, the president demonstrated some emotion on this issue. He was clearly saving it until the end of his speech. And then he put Republicans and anti-gun control Democrats in a box with his formulation of "Give them a vote!"
Now, I would much rather have the president pushing for passage of strong legislation than a simple vote on the weak ones that have been proposed, but as a political move it was brilliant. Once legislators are forced to vote on the issue, something, anything, might actually pass. Moreover, everyone will be on record. And those who vote against even these mild restrictions will look doubly worse the next time there's a mass shooting, which sadly is inevitable.
Finally, what was important about this speech wasn't just what was in it, but what happened afterwards. The Republican response was split between a mainstream favorite, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and a member of the tea party wing, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Rubio's speech looked and sounded good, but he hit on the tired GOP themes of cutting government spending on everything but defense as if all that other money goes into some black hole as opposed to Medicare and Social Security and transportation and education and a lot of things that people want. He struck me as a young rocker singing 1910's ragtime hits. Rand Paul's speech was surprising for not being entirely nuts; he even had some sensible things to say about immigration.
But the very fact of the two responses (and this is the third time there have been two GOP responses to the State of the Union), regardless of what they said, is important. It comes on the heels of the dust up over Karl Rove's new group designed to bolster establishment GOP candidates and wrestle control of the party back from the tea party activists.
It's entirely possible that this fissure will result in a true split with a real Tea Party, as in a separate political party, forming and taking with it a pile of Republican votes.
If that happens, look for the Republicans to wander in the political wilderness awhile longer and give the president an opening and more time to make some real progress on real issues.