Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., sat with Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., an old friend whose office is next door. As Obama said at the top of his speech, what matters "is not whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., sat with Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., an old friend whose office is next door.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., asked one of his longtime Republican friends if he could sit next to him, but he already had a date. "I was going to ask if I could sit on the other side of him, but it started feeling silly, like in high school," Markey said.
The parties have sat on opposite sides of the aisle for State of the Union speeches since the 1840s, so this year's dating-game seating arrangement is definitely a new wrinkle on this regal D.C. tradition.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., got the ball rolling in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson. People want more civility from their leaders, Udall said, and they might want to see members of Congress sitting together as Americans, not as partisans.
There was a little grousing from a tea party freshman that the new arrangement was a plot to undermine their ideological fervor, but most accepted the idea in good humor. Opposites from the Senate paired up: John Kerry sat with John McCain, Scott Brown sat with Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, New York's Chuck Schumer sat with Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, Joe Lieberman sat with Joe Lieberman ...
It seems to have worked. Everyone was pretty well behaved, in part because of the seating arrangement. There were fewer interruptions for applause and the clapping didn't seem to go on as long –– when the person next to you is sitting on his hands, it's more awkward to stand and cheer for minutes at a time.
That much was a distinct improvement. To the viewers at home, the choreographed standing and sitting –– one side up, one side down, both sides standing and clapping together when the president slips in a phrase with which everyone wants to be associated –– is a silly distraction.
Nor did anyone stand up and shout, "You lie!" at the president, which happened last time Obama visited the House.
But one night of civility does not constitute a changed dynamic. The partisan divide remains, no matter where members sat. There are larger trends at work that make it harder for Republicans and Democrats to work together.
Congress members don't move their families to Washington and don't put down roots. Unlike a generation ago, Congress members of different parties don't get to know each other on the golf course or meet for poker and drinks. Their spouses and children don't get to know each other at school or church.
Those social ties don't get forged, and they aren't there to lean on when you need to find common ground on a piece of legislation.
In recent years, Republicans have refrained from travel overseas, afraid they'll be accused of taking junkets. Some of them brag about not having passports, advertising their ignorance of life outside the U.S. borders, as if that were a virtue. But those trips have traditionally been the best opportunity for members of opposite parties to get to know each other as people, Neal and McGovern said.
There are other forces pulling members apart. The leaders of both parties know the appearance of civility is important to voters, especially. Obama is devoted to being the most civil guy in the room because independents are the key to his re-election.
But independents aren't the key in most House districts, thanks to partisan redistricting moves in state legislatures. Most House members are in safe seats. Often, they are more vulnerable to a primary challenge –– especially mounted by tea party Republicans –– than to the other party. Thus, they are pulled to ideological extremes.
This is a serious issue for the Republicans in the 112th Congress, as its leaders deal with a large and unruly freshman class heavily influenced by tea partiers. So far, House Speaker John Boehner has chosen symbolism over substance, forcing votes on the repeal of health care reform and deep cuts in government spending that are either going nowhere or carry no weight.
Markey says he's already making deals with Republicans he's worked with for years on legislation where their interests coincide. But the hard work is still ahead.
And as Obama said at the top of his speech, what matters "is not whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.