Separating Disrespect From Not-Disrespect

Given our current political climate, it is utterly predictable that even the august occasion of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress will be turned into an occasion for asinine political gamesmanship on both sides of the aisle.

According to news reports, some Republicans have said they won’t attend.  Senator Jim DeMint, for example, says probably won’t go because he’s “sick and tired” of speeches.  The Republicans also have said they won’t offer a “response” to the President’s speech, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has depicted that decision as “disrespectful” to the President and to the American people.

I think any Member of Congress who chooses not to attend a presidential address to a joint session of Congress is showing disrespect — to their position, to the head of a coequal branch of government, and to our constitutional system — and should be  voted out of office.  The fact that Republicans may disagree with what President Obama will have to say is irrelevant:  it is their job to hear what he proposes and then to decide how to respond to it, even if they believe that by sitting in the House chamber they are just acting as extras in a bit of political theater.  And any Member of Congress inevitably has sat through hundreds of speeches that have spanned the spectrum from dazzling to stupefying.  A politician who says he is “tired” of speeches is like a doctor who says he is “tired” of dealing with sick people.  If Senator DeMint really feels that way, it’s time for him to hang up his spurs.

On the other hand, I see no disrespect whatsoever in the Republicans’ decision not to have someone make a “response” to the President’s speech.  Indeed, perhaps the decision to junk the “response” will cause us to get rid of that pointless contrivance — or at least resort to it far less frequently.  How often does anyone even pay attention to a “response”?  In this instance, what people want to hear are specifics about what the President will offer as a remedy to our continuing unemployment problems, not what some Republican nobody says in a pre-programmed, platitude-laden “response.”  Indeed, I think the Republicans’ decision to waive a “response” shows respect to President Obama by allowing his speech and his proposals to take center stage.

I don’t mind strong disagreement between the parties about actual matters of policy; that is how our political system is supposed to work. The hyperbole, however, should be reserved for actual disputes about policy.  Name-calling and positioning about ancillary matters like attending a presidential address or giving a “response” makes our elected leaders look petty and small, and does nothing except increase the disdain that average Americans feel for the political classes and the decisions they make that affect us all.

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