The state of the union is … iffy

ha ha
Nancy Pelosi welcoming Donald Trump during last year's State of the Union address. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If we’re lucky, Tuesday evening’s state of the union address will meet the standards set by the vast majority of its predecessors and, unlike whatever that thing was that happened in Iowa Monday, be boring and quickly forgotten.

Well, maybe not entirely forgotten. It’s not every year a president delivers a state of the union address the night before his house-trained senators toss the national interest aside so as to give the president a green light to cheat in an upcoming election.

But other than that national crime of historical proportions, Americans should be thankful if the evening goes off without the president of the United States embarking on some stream-of-consciousness ramble on the relative threat to society posed by whatever animal, vegetable or mineral has displeased him prior to his arrival in the House chamber. With any luck, he’ll stick to his customary lies and distortions, in this instance fed to a teleprompter by staffers working with all the adoration and terror of Dracula’s faithful servant, poor Mr. Renfield.

Yes, these affairs are usually super boring. But they are also a spectacle, so people dress up. And each member of Congress gets to bring along an invited guest.

This might be an honor of a lifetime for a Nevadan, if literally anyone else was president. Since literally anyone else is not, it is instead an opportunity for members of Congress to highlight a cause or an issue.

This year, Nevada Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford has invited welfare rights and health care activist Ruby Duncan. Rep. Susie Lee is bringing a senior citizen struggling to pay the high costs of prescription drugs. Sen. Jacky Rosen is bringing a veteran, because duh. And Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is bringing Reno’s police chief, which is … ok whatever.

Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, for the third year, will leave the seat next to her empty, to memorialize victims of the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip. The congresswoman says she hopes the president “will get a glimpse of this empty seat and recognize the deadly consequences of inaction.”

The sentiment, and the gesture, is understandable and appreciated. But if Titus wanted to get the president’s attention, instead of leaving the seat next to her open, she should fill it with former National Security Advisor John Bolton.

The Democratic response to this year’s state of the union will be delivered by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Each year, people who get paid to write about politics (just like me, except with bigger salaries and a capacity to stomach insiders), note that being selected to respond to a state of the union address is a sign that a politician shows great promise.

History backs that up. Remember former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s agonizingly earnest impersonation of “Kenneth the page” from 30Rock in 2011? Remember Bobby Jindal? At all? 

No? 

OK bad example.

But who can forget Marco Rubio’s death-defying lunge for a water bottle in 2013? And look at Little Marco now! Why, Wednesday, he’ll be voting to acquit a president even though Rubio is not an idiot and knows full well Trump is guilty as charged. He truly is little Marco.

Here’s one you’ve all probably forgotten (my mind holds a menagerie of useless information so I of course have not). In 2005, after Democrats got their hats handed to them in 2004 for the second election in a row by Karl Rove’s flag-waving chest-thumping gay-hating women’s rights-despising Republicans — in other words, after a campaign that was largely about “the heartland” and “values” — Nevada Sen. Harry Reid delivered part of the Democratic response to George W. Bush’s state of the union address.

Reid talked about the Bush administration’s plan to privatize Social Security. It wasn’t really a plan, more of hazy aspiration, and one Bush jettisoned upon realizing that even members of Congress in his own party thought the idea was poison and didn’t want to get any on them. Reid would later contend his gallant fight to save Social Security was the reason Democrats won back Congress in 2006. (Note: The reason Democrats won back Congress in the 2006 election was voters were finally sick and tired of the Iraq war they had once supported and that Reid voted for in 2002).

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Reid also used his SOTU response to flatter Karl Rove to the skies. As heartily as he could (this was during the period when Reid was trying, really trying, to come across as the kindly avuncular senator; it was awkward as hell to watch), Reid professed the crucial importance not only of “strong values,” but also “old-fashioned moral values.” Rove must have been humbled by such a stirring homage to his narratives.

In attempting to co-opt Republican talking points, Reid was emulating a Democratic pattern that had already stretched back decades, and which reached its rhetorical peak at the 1996 SOTU when Bill Clinton, his triangulation knob turned up to 11, declared “the era of big government is over.”

How quaint it all seems now. But then, so does Nixon. Now.

Trump Tuesday will proclaim his personal perfection in all areas, and lie about policies and politicians that don’t belong to him.

On one hand, ho hum, more of the same.

On the other hand, it’s far from clear how much more of the same the United States can withstand before deteriorating into a dystopia where people who fail to swear loyalty to Trump and Trumpism will be oppressed and punished. Who believes Trump, a thief and a cheat, after all, would bat an eye at seizing the assets of ordinary Americans for criticizing him openly? And who believes Republicans in Congress would raise a finger to stop him?

Yeah, the Iowa caucus was a farce. It will also seem silly compared to the runaway hyper-ugliness that will be the rest of the 2020 presidential campaign. The electoral college combined with Republican voter suppression will make it a taller order than it should be, but if the nation hopes to survive perhaps the most existential threat it has faced since the Civil War, it better keep its eye on the ball, and make sure the next state of the union address is delivered by literally anyone else.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.