Last night was President Barack Obama’s second State of the Union address, but it also was the nation’s first-ever Congressional prom.
Congress members from both parties sat beside rivals from across the aisle in a show of uncommon Congressional civility that sent a message to a nation shaken by the Tucson tragedy.
But the big question yesterday was whether these olive branches would leave a lasting imprint on the national psyche.
Some political observers said the night of bipartisan seating is a soothing gesture welcome by much of the nation.
“The public wants a calming down, and this is a first-level response to that,” said Robert Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University. “Both sides realize partisan conflict needs to be, even symbolically or superficially, toned down.”
Still, Shapiro said, “Whether this means a change in party conflict, that’s still an open question.”
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) spearheaded the Congressional prom, saying that partisan seating shows that Congress “cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two.”
Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens-Brooklyn), who sat with long-time Republican rival Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), told amNewYork it was a chance to honor those lost in the Arizona shooting that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) severely wounded and six others dead, as well as a display of civility.
“There’s no doubt that it’s symbolic, but it’s not a minor symbol,” Weiner said. “If we can remind Americans that … Congress still can get along, I think that’s a worthy gesture.”
He added that sitting with King is “not the first date in a long love affair,” but that it “will make it easier for us to work together in the future.”
For Karol Marcowicz, a conservative blogger and political consultant, the hoopla surrounding the seating overshadows any symbolism.
“This is meaningless,” she said. “Viewers at home want to know where the jobs are, and when unemployment will go down, and when the economy will start working again. Not who their congressman sat next to.”
In a pessimistic note, political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said that in the end, the long-term impact will manifest itself on campaign trails.
“This will be the stuff of television ads, radio ads and direct mail: ‘We tried to get along, but look what the other guy did.’ ”