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C. Fraser Smith: Taking a rhetorical mayhem break

Did you find yourself hoping for a Joe Wilson redux Tuesday night?

If so, you weren’t alone.

After the SOTU (that’s media speak for State of the Union), commentator Joe Scarborough found the president’s presentation underwhelming, lacking in emotional power or and punch.

It was like people woke up to the realization that public speaking needs a little NASCAR or a little gap-tooth NHL jersey-rasslin’ or helmet-to-helmet hits in the NFL. The president needed to ring our bells.

It’s a little disconcerting to realize how hooked we are on conflict and acrimony. Don’t people just love the crashes, the on-ice fights and the concussions? Asked and answered, as the lawyers say.

Fortunately, as even the president suggested, the likelihood that rhetorical mayhem will return was discounted by no one. Yes, the two sides sat together, but would they love each other in the morning? They will not.

In case you wondered about the longevity of this moment of good feeling, you might have watched the tea party’s SOTU rebuttal Tuesday evening.  The GOP’s Paul Ryan acknowledged that Obama had been dealt a difficult hand. The tea party’s Michele Bachmann motored right past that moment of fairness to assert that Obama’s remedial efforts had simply made everything worse.

Tea party momentum

This was a predictable, even understandable effort for the tea party to maintain its momentum.

You could spot the same determination in recent developments in Maryland.

In a largely-below-the-radar event, the GOP’s state senators realigned themselves to reflect a more conservative, tea party-ish identity. The action came after the party itself elected Alex Mooney, a former state senator from Frederick defeated in last year’s election, as its new state chairman.

This month, when it came to organize themselves for the 2011 legislative session, the state Senate’s Republican members said goodbye to their former leader, Howard County’s Allan Kittleman, after he declared himself willing to think about some compromise in the area of civil union or gay marriage.

Senate Republicans apparently couldn’t have that kind of concession, so the party cast about for a successor. Would it be the equally reasonable and thoughtful David Brinkley of Frederick? Or would it be the harder-right Nancy Jacobs of Harford?

Jacobs reportedly hesitated. Ultimately, though, she accepted the post, reportedly at the urging of Mooney. Brinkley declined to serve as her second-in-command, whereupon the redoubtable E.J. Pipkin stepped forward.

Rightward drift

All of which is simply to say that the rightward drift of politics is likely to continue in spite of any call for working together on issues that will continue to be controversial.

That may bode well for the return of riveting speeches.

On Tuesday, it was as if Mr. Obama had inadvertently sucked the juice out his own speech by urging conciliation and bipartisanship. It was like your Sunday School teacher had finally convinced you and your rambunctious friends to pay attention during the lesson and never to backslide.

Was it bo-ring?

Not really, but you wonder if calls for harder work and sacrifice can ever equal something like South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” moment of Warholian fame last year.

Obama, of course, can’t win. The left criticized his speech for being too conciliatory to business and for leaving out concern about the poor and middle class.

And where was some allusion to the matters of guns in society? It was passing strange to have the black-and-white-ribbon tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and no mention of mental health issues in our society.

At the end of the day, we are left to parse and re-parse the speech. Given the lack of tension, could it possibly have been a stirring call to action?

Probably not – which is a shame. And yet the president and the nation might be forgiven if there was a bit of passion fatigue. Obama’s speech in Tucson will undoubtedly be remembered far longer.

Much of what the president said this week – the challenge he put before us – could go a-glimmering as quickly as the SOTU-manufactured moment of comity.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is [email protected]