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Opinion

Opinion: Bernie Sanders or Stacey Abrams? How about neither? Retire the State of the Union response

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Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams will deliver the official Democratic reply to President Trump's State of the Union address.
(John Amis / Associated Press)

Five years ago I argued that we should abolish the practice of the president doing shout-outs to human props — I mean, honored guests — in the audience at the State of the Union address. I wrote that the practice, begun by President Reagan, was unnecessary political theater that had become “a cliche and the object of satire.”

Despite the persuasiveness of my argument, the practice persists.

Among the guests invited by Trump and First Lady Melania Trump to Tuesday’s State of the Union address are relatives of Gerald and Sharon David, who, according to the White House, “were tragically murdered in their home in Nevada by an illegal immigrant” and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grader from Delaware who “has been bullied in school due to his last name.”

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Not be outdone, members of Congress also will have guests at the speech who check various political and demographic boxes. For example, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) will host Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Cameron Kasky.

I renew my objection to this use of human talking points by both the president and members of Congress. But I have another suggestion: Do away with the “official” televised response to the president’s address by a member of the opposing party.

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This year that rebuttal will be provided by Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who lost a close election for governor of Georgia last year. But she won’t be the only responder. California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra will deliver the Democratic response in Spanish and Sen. Bernie Sanders will also chime in with a rebuttal to Trump that will be available on Facebook Live, Twitter and YouTube. (Even though Sanders will speak after Abrams’ appearance, some critics are accusing him of stealing her thunder and even of “talking over the black woman our party chose to speak for us”)

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I always have thought the official reply to the State of the Union was unnecessary. The opposite-party rebuttal is not a venerable tradition. It goes back to 1966, when Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen and House Republican leader Gerald R. Ford responded to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address five days after LBJ delivered it.

More to the point, it assumes that the president in the State of the Union is speaking as head of his party rather than as chief executive. Granted, presidents — even an unconventional one such as Trump — can be expected to inject partisan appeals into the speech. But the president isn’t speaking as a party functionary. He is complying with the Constitution’s mandate that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

By all means Democrats (and independents such as Sanders) should feel free to critique the president’s address, and journalists should cover those remarks if they are newsworthy. But we have only one president, and there is only one State of the Union speech. The institution of an “official” response creates a false equivalence. Along with shout-outs to honored guests, it should be retired.

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