We hope Washington politics hasn’t devolved to the point where catcalls and boorish behavior become a regular part of important public events. But we fear the worst.

The heckling against President Joe Biden during various parts of his State of the Union address Tuesday night were disappointing. One of the most memorable visual images of the evening was that of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, seated behind the president, gently urging members of his own party to shush. 

State of the Union speeches in the television age typically have been as much theater as substance. But until 14 years ago, the opposing party did little to express displeasure with the speech other than to remain seated and refuse to applaud. 

Since then, it seems, one can draw a direct line from South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst of “You lie!” to former President Barack Obama in his 2009 speech (which shocked much of the nation), through former Speaker Nancy Pelosi dramatically ripping up former President Donald Trump’s speech in 2020 and to Tuesday night’s periodic outbursts.

Alexander Pope’s words come to mind regarding how vice is first endured, then pitied, then embraced. Incivility is certainly a modern vice that threatens society. But elected leaders ought to set a better example.

The irony is that Tuesday night’s display allowed Biden to go off script and engage his detractors, giving him the chance he may not otherwise have had to show the energy and intellect he needs to demonstrate if he intends to run for a second term.

The substance

We were disappointed with much of what the president did and didn’t say, from a policy standpoint. His insistence that the nation’s economic woes could be solved only by taxing the rich as well as wealthy corporations is beginning to sound as dated as it is untrue. 

His proposed billionaire tax and the tax on stock buybacks are narrow levies that, as the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit, has said, would further complicate an already hopelessly complicated tax code, “creating difficulty for a currently overwhelmed Internal Revenue Service and complexity for taxpayers.”

The idea of raising revenues from the rich seriously understates the nation’s economic woes and gross overspending habit. The United States needs a simpler tax code. It needs fiscal restraint and a realization that two of its largest entitlements, Social Security and Medicare — the programs that initiated some of the heckling Tuesday night — must be reformed before, as their trustees have said, they face financial emergencies in a few years.

And, although he mentioned China and his resolve to stand strong, we were disappointed that the president avoided addressing the Chinese balloon his administration shot out of the sky in recent days, claiming it was launched for purposes of spying. The incident was enough to scuttle a visit to China by the secretary of state. Surely, it warranted a strongly worded statement in Biden’s speech.

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The chance ahead

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And yet, we take no issue with one of the main themes of the president’s talk, which was the need for political rivals to find bipartisan solutions to problems. His strongest moment may have been near the beginning, when he said, referring to the last election, “Folks, I think the people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”

He touched on many areas for which there ought to be room to compromise and agree, from immigration to internet reforms that protect children. He addressed the need for police reforms while also standing up for selfless law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line daily. He lauded former President George W. Bush for successfully fighting HIV/AIDS worldwide.

In the end, however, speeches accomplish little. Republican majorities in the House and Democratic majorities in the Senate must decide in coming months whether they are serious about their duties to govern, or whether they want to stand on the sidelines and heckle each other for two years. 

We hope Tuesday’s hecklers consider their influence on the nation and resolve to instead become tomorrow’s statesmen and stateswomen. We hope that, no matter how strong the differences, uncivil behavior is banished from the halls of the nation’s representatives and, to paraphrase an earlier president, the better angels of our nature emerge.

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