Last week saw President Obama give his second annual State of the Union address. As is usual for the President, he gave a stirring and quite moving speech. He gave homage to those killed and wounded in the Arizona shooting, and to those serving our country in the military. He was quite conciliatory and gave props to Republicans as well as Democrats.

A number of interesting things took place during the event, all of which give pause as to how our government is operating these days. To begin with, Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, wrote letters to his colleagues in Congress. Udall said, “There is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country. The choreographed standing and clapping on one side of the room—while the other side sits—is unbecoming of a serious institution.”

Usually, Republicans sit to the right and Democrats to the left. Udall wanted to break with custom. “Perhaps by sitting together for one night we will begin to rekindle that common spark that brought us here from 50 different states and widely diverging backgrounds to serve the public good,” he said.

And he’s right. There is no rule that the parties have to keep themselves separate from each other. In fact, historically that’s not the way it’s been. Off-the-record socializing was an important reason the divided Congresses of the ‘50s worked so effectively. Then Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson smoked and drank and played cards with his Republican counterparts. There was the famous friendship between Republican President Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, who would get together after hours for socializing and a nightcap.

So it’s somewhat of a tragic commentary on where we are today that someone has to send a letter just to get politicians from opposing parties to sit together.

I suppose that is what we need. Sarah Palin’s words about taking aim and “re-loading” in the effort to defeat Democrats are well publicized, as is her use of the crosshairs of a gun to target districts with Democratic representatives. And just last week, Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton created a Power Point presentation in his bid to secure the chairmanship of the Energy Committee. It compared Republican congressional leaders to General Eisenhower, General Omar Bradley and General George S. Patton in “battle against the Obama administration.” This seems to, by implication, make the president and his Democratic allies the Nazi German army. Certainly this is unhelpful in creating a tone of mutual respect and constructive engagement. It used to be that even if you disagreed with the other party, you worked to convince them, and work with them to reach a solution, to the issues facing the country. Today it’s strictly to defeat them.

The Republican response to the President’s speech was given by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a rising star in the Republican party. Ryan is best known for a controversial budget plan with some drastic ideas, such as gradually turning Medicare into a voucher program, curbing Social Security benefits and allowing younger workers to divert Social Security taxes into private accounts.

He said some interesting, yet hard to understand, things. He touted the fact that earlier in the week the House Republicans voted for a full repeal of the health care law. The funny thing is he also stated that, “We will work to replace it with fiscally responsible, patient-centered reforms that actually reduce costs and expand coverage.” In the eight years of the Bush administration, they never once proposed a health care plan. And they don’t have one on the table now. Let’s see this alternative, and then we can make a choice.

He also ruminated on the fact that debt is out of control. “What was a fiscal challenge is now a fiscal crisis,” Ryan said. “We cannot deny it; instead we must, as Americans, confront it responsibly.” He failed to mention that the tax cuts demanded by the Republicans for the richest Americans are adding $400 billion to the deficit. Another point in his response was that the President is urging Congress to increase the debt limit. Funny, under the Republican administration of President Bush, the debt limit was raised by $5.4 trillion. I would be more likely to believe him if there was some track record to back it up.

In a very unusual move, a second response was given by another Republican, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. She gave her response from Iowa, coincidentally where the first presidential caucuses are held, and she’s been rumored to be interested in a possible candidacy.

She’ll have a lot of explaining to do. In a recent speech, she was rhapsodizing on the uniqueness of our country. “How unique in all of the world, that one nation that was the resting point from people groups all across the world… It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status. Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable?” What’s remarkable is that someone with such a high position of authority in this country doesn’t know basic history.

Rep. Bachmann must have forgotten that when the people first came here, those of color were slaves, and women weren’t full citizens. Chinese, Irish, Jews, etc., were all subject to great discrimination. She continued on, saying “We know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States… I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forbearers who worked tirelessly—men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.” Of course, those founders didn’t end slavery, and it was 100 years later, in the 1860’s, when we had a civil war over that issue.

Yet here she is, with a national audience, lecturing us on how to cure our ills. Yes, it’s going to be an interesting Congress for the next two years.

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