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January 24, 2012 4:15 PM In defense of partisan SOTU seating

By Steve Benen

As part of a symbolic gesture, more than 180 members of Congress have reportedly committed to having a seatmate from the other party at the State of the Union address. It’s apparently intended to be a move to demonstrate a degree of bipartisanship — lawmakers don’t really hate one another, the argument goes, if they’re willing to sit with colleagues they disagree with.

The idea has become popular enough that a non-partisan group called No Labels even took out a full-page ad in the New York Times recently, insisting upon bipartisan SOTU seating.

I’m not necessarily bothered by the notion of bipartisan seating. But I think the traditional model has underappreciated virtues.

For those who aren’t familiar with the usual arrangements, when presidents appear in the House chamber to deliver State of the Union addresses, Democrats nearly always sit on their side of the aisle, while Republicans sit on the other.

Over the last couple of years, most notably in the wake of last year’s shootings in Tucson, there’s been a drive towards more intermingling. Dan Amira made an argument a while back that still strikes me as compelling:

Unity is great, sure, but apart from the entertainment value, there is an important practical reason to maintain the State of the Union’s partisan seating arrangement. A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president’s agenda and the issues of the day. It’s actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated.

Thrown together in one big bipartisan hodgepodge, congressmen and senators would still carefully regulate their applause, but that brief chamber reaction shot on TV becomes nearly impossible to decipher. The country could certainly benefit from more symbolic demonstrations of solidarity, but the State of the Union address is one instance where a stark partisan divide is actually good for democracy.

That sounds right to me. When Republicans, for example, stand in response to something President Obama says, that conveys something important to the public. Intersperse members, and the visual lessons disappear.

We’d be left, in effect, with cues from just two people — Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, who’ll be seated behind the president, and who probably won’t be standing in unison.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Redshift on January 24, 2012 4:21 PM:

    It's yet another round of our idiotic political media's obsession with the idea that partisanship is bad, and if politicians were less partisan, they'd be able to get along and get things done. Apparently, that's much easier than doing their job and explaining that politicians don't get along because they believe different things and are supported by people who believe different things. I'd be happy if they treated each others' ideas with more respect (and if the ideas don't have the evidence to back them up, respectfully smack them down), but I sure as hell don't want them just to all agree on positions halfway between moderate and right-wing-crazy.

    So I'm with you -- I'm in favor of arrangements that make the contrasts clear, and against arrangements that try to paper over them, like this proposal.

  • Mike on January 24, 2012 4:22 PM:

    It also helps to know which side of the aisle the shouts of "You lie" come from.

  • JS on January 24, 2012 4:23 PM:

    Based on his interview over the weekend, it sounds like Boehner is going to sit through the entire speech, rolling two steel balls in his right hand while wondering what Obama did with the strawberries.

  • Bob M on January 24, 2012 4:27 PM:

    It makes it seem like all of them support only the 1%. Forget it.

  • Danp on January 24, 2012 4:32 PM:

    I don't think we need a laugh track to tell whether a joke is funny, and I really don't think we need ovations to tell us whether an idea is good. I just want someone close enough to punch Joe Wilson in the face if he yells, "You lie."

  • c u n d gulag on January 24, 2012 4:33 PM:

    I prefer the old way.

    It was easier to see the petulance of Republicans when our Nigra Presidential Usurper has the temerity to talk to them.

    Will the SCOTUS be there, so Alito can shake his head again?

  • Rabbler on January 24, 2012 4:42 PM:

    At last some realism. We are voting for people who stand up at the right time during a speech.

  • Gummo on January 24, 2012 4:56 PM:

    This stupid "let's all sit together and play nice" reduces the life-or-death differences between the parties to nothing more than bad manners.

    It treats our elected leaders like second graders who need to be threatened with a time out.

    Wait, that's actually a pretty accurate description...

  • chopin on January 24, 2012 5:07 PM:

    Let them mingle. And to prove they are integrated, make the Donkeys wear blue and the Rethugs wear red ;-)

  • Kathryn on January 24, 2012 5:41 PM:

    Good one Gummo.......The No Labels organization gives me the creeps , way too sactimonious and that goes for their often spokesman with the curly hair whose name I can't remember but he use to work for Bush re-election. One more whine, the sight of Boehner with that bored snarky look behind Obama is, shall we say, unpleasant.

  • Common Knowledge on January 24, 2012 5:58 PM:

    "When Republicans, for example, stand in response to something President Obama says".

    Steven, I'm going to miss your droll sense of humor around here.

    Good luck! See you at MSNBC.

  • exlibra on January 24, 2012 7:02 PM:

    I like Chopin's idea (@5:07PM) that, if they're going to sit in one great heap, then the Dems should wear blue and the Repubs red. I like to know who is who and who does what, and, since I don't know *all* of their faces (esp in the House), I need some clues.

    Also, too... Perhaps, instead of clapping or standing up, Dems could pinch or punch the Repubs?

    All in all, I think it's a stupid idea, but typical of people for whom form takes precedence over substance and wrapping over content.

    "who tterpu". Right; the idea is utter poo.

  • exlibra on January 24, 2012 7:13 PM:

    And here is what some of the brats who ought to be sitting on the other side of the isle think:
    http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/205853-gop-rep-to-skip-state-of-the-union-as-protest

    "elfalls history". Falls, fails, little difference; Lamborn is a dick of historical proportions.

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