Some of the blame for this yearly night of nonsense goes to Ronald Reagan. Most, however, goes to Woodrow Wilson. Reagan, who loved entertainment, pioneered the regrettable practice of stocking the House gallery with (usually) admirable people. Wilson, who loved himself, had, as professors often do, a theory, which caused him to reverse Thomas Jefferson’s wholesome reticence.
When the Founding generation was developing customs and manners appropriate to a republic, George Washington and John Adams made the mistake of going to Congress to do their constitutional duty of informing and recommending. Jefferson, however, disliked the sound of his voice — such an aversion is a vanishingly rare presidential virtue — and considered it monarchical for the executive to lecture the legislature, the lofty instructing underlings. So he sent written thoughts to Capitol Hill, a practice good enough for subsequent presidents until Wilson in 1913 delivered his message orally, pursuant to the progressives’ belief in inspirational and tutelary presidents.
It is beyond unseemly, it is anti-constitutional for senior military officers and, even worse, Supreme Court justices to attend these political rallies where, with metronomic regularity, legislators of the president’s party leap to their feet to whinny approval of every bromide and vow. Members of the other party remain theatrically stolid, thereby provoking brow-furrowing punditry about why John Boehner did not rise (to genuflect? salute? swoon?) when Barack Obama mentioned this or that. Tuesday night, the justices, generals and admirals, looking as awkward as wallflowers at a prom, at least stayed seated.
Except for Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito, who stayed away. They missed a clunker of a speech, although the tedium was not much worse than usual, and was redeemed by clarifying three things.
First, Obama’s declaration that nothing in his long list of proposed spending “should” — should? — “increase our deficit by a single dime” means there should be commensurate tax increases. Second, now that he has proclaimed that government “must keep the promises we’ve already made,” only the uneducable can still believe he will consider entitlement reforms. Third, by saying spending cuts under the sequester would be “harsh” and would “devastate” domestic programs, he made applesauce of those two words: The cuts would remove only $85 billion from this year’s almost $3.6 trillion budget, and over a decade they would cut just $1.2 trillion from projected spending of $46 trillion. And spending this year would still be well above the post-1945 norm as a percentage of gross domestic product.