In September 2009, a Republican representative from South Carolina named Joe Wilson inserted himself into history. He interrupted President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress by shouting, “You lie.”
The outburst shocked viewers. Wilson, not Obama, was the top trending item on Twitter in the aftermath of the speech. Wilson apologized, “I let my emotions get the best of me.” Then–Republican Conference Chair Mike Pence expressed regret: “Joe made a mistake.” Wilson was formally reprimanded by a vote of the House.
More than a decade later, that all seems quaint. Not only did Republicans repeatedly heckle, jeer, and shout during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, but Biden was ready for them. In impromptu remarks not included in the prepared text of the speech, Biden rolled with the interruptions, using them to reinforce his message. Biden accused “some” Republicans of plotting to sunset Social Security and Medicare. When he got protests, he grinned and accepted them as a “unanimous” endorsement. “I welcome all converts,” he told them, recasting for the television audience the Republican hubbub as a sign of submission.
Partisanship, populism, and patriotism were his themes. The speech was strewn with traps carefully constructed to ensnare opponents. He opened with a tribute to bipartisanship, but the mechanics of his address were based on shrewd and unapologetic hyper-partisanship. He anticipated negative reactions in the chamber—and used them to reinforce his message. [Continue reading…]