Since 1790 U.S. presidents gave a State of the Union report—and no response from any opposition followed. For much of our history, these reports were written rather than spoken. This repeated for 176 years until, in 1966, with Lyndon Johnson president, began the practice of an opposition response. Since then, with but one exception, Lyndon Johnson’s last State of the Union, every oral presentation of this report has been followed by negative congressional echoes.
I still remember, when the first one came (and every time after) thinking that this was somehow wrong. We don’t have two or three presidents. Why two or three states of the union? The Constitution, Article II, Section 3, requires the president to give such reports. There’s nothing in the Constitution about an Opposition Response. The response demeans the office, degrades the symbol—and when the symbols are tarnished, look out.
Certain kinds of opposition are out of place. When the Queen of England Speaks—to be sure echoing sentiments approved by the majority in Parliament—the opposition keeps mum. My perception is that respect for the office of president in our country has been visibly declining, and ever-increasing “opposition responses” to every major presidential address are the formal sign of that. The actual signs are many and increasing—thus behavior that actual signals contempt for the president, done by a nod and a wink, but clearly understood by vast constituencies. But therein lies genuine danger.
Grim although the prospect is—and unlikely that I’ll actually live to see it—this too shall pass. A time will come when some future president will speak and no one will rise to give a response—because it might prove lethal. And after that future presidents won’t bother giving states of the union, either, because there will no longer be a union in our current sense. Time is on my side. Whatever rises is sure to fall; whatever sinks is sure to rise again. And when it does, it won’t be pretty. Pay me now or pay me later.