Voices: At the State of the Union, Republicans showed who they really are – and it wasn’t pretty

Like most State of the Union speeches, this one was notable not for its content but for the drama that was unleashed on the margins. It began with a CNN report that Mitt Romney went up to George Santos in the chamber and told him, “You don’t belong here,” and it ended with Marjorie Taylor Greene heckling while dressed as Cruella de Vil.

But let’s rewind. Al Weaver, a reporter at The Hill who covers the Senate, asked Romney to confirm whether he had called Santos “an embarrassment” and got the reply: “I don’t know the exact words I said. He shouldn’t have been there. Look, he’s a sick puppy. He shouldn’t have been there.” Romney clearly hadn’t gotten the memo that you shouldn’t mention sick puppies around George Santos (for anyone who hasn’t been following the latest on Congress’s most fascinating liar, one of the many, many allegations recently made against Santos include one that he stole $3,000 from a GoFundMe intended for a veteran’s sick dog. Then again, Santos has never admitted to those allegations — whereas Romney himself once readily admitted to strapping the family dog to the luggage compartment of his car before driving six hours down the highway.)

And though I don’t want this all to become about Santos, it does seem fair to add that the poor man leapt to his feet to applaud Biden’s insulin announcement before looking around, noticing that none of his fellow Republicans were doing the same, and slowly sitting back down. This would count for anybody else as an embarrassing moment, but it won’t even register on the Santos radar. In fact, it’s not even the most embarrassing thing he did this evening. Santos brought a 9/11 firefighter as his guests to the SOTU, perhaps in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation or legitimize some of his wilder claims. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, and just reminded everybody that Romney’s “sick puppy” kept claiming his mother died in 9/11 on the campaign trail, before journalists started digging through obituaries and residency records and found out that his mother actually died from cancer 15 years after 9/11, in Brazil, having not lived in the US since the nineties.

Santos’ brazen presence underlines exactly why other Republican politicians are having such a hard time of it. On Tuesday night, Kevin McCarthy tried his darnedest to look like a representative of a normal party. When Biden opened his speech by congratulating him on his new position as Speaker of the House, jovially saying, “Mr Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” McCarthy smiled back and applauded. When Biden said that most police are good officers who just want to come home to their families, McCarthy was on his feet again. And when Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted, “Liar!” at the president while he was speaking, the look on McCarthy’s face could only fairly be described as long-suffering.

The GOP only just retook the house. They’re projected to take the Senate after the next election. Things are looking up. Meanwhile, Donald Trump — the favorite to win the Republican nomination for 2024 — spent the day of the State of the Union unleashing a vicious new attack against Ron Desantis. And then Taylor Greene turned up dressed in a fur coat, having spent the previous few hours gallivanting around Congress with a white balloon.

Yet through it all, Biden tried to kill them with kindness. He even gave Mitch McConnell a shout-out in his opening words. Everyone knows that Joe and Mitch are friends, really, when they’re not performing for the cameras. But in front of the cameras, they have to do this routine: Joe tries to bring him round, and Mitch acts like his dad just turned up at the end of prom night and is shouting about whether he needs a lift home. “Where are ya, Mitch?” said Biden, and everybody stood to applaud Mitch’s long record of service in Congress, and Mitch, cold as ice, stayed right in his seat.

“We’re often told Democrats and Republicans cant work together,” Biden continued, undaunted. “Over the past two years, we’ve proved the cynics wrong.” But have we? In some sense, the evidence is there: 300 pieces of successfully signed-off legislation; some genuinely transformative deals. But in another, it’s hard to ignore the fact that a huge proportion of the GOP has gone off the deep end. A male voice from the Republican side of the room started yelling, “It’s your fault!” when Biden delivered a passionate aside about parents who have lost their children to fentanyl. It was indecorous, to say the least.

How does Biden work with these fringe members, some of whom genuinely seem to believe the US government is being run by a mysterious presence called Q? Republicans like to shout about culture wars and commies, but the evidence of who’s actually a threat to democratic norms was right there in the chamber on Tuesday night. Bernie Sanders, a dangerous communist to any right-winger in the GOP, was the only person wearing an N95 mask, and spent his time nonchalantly cleaning his glasses. Elizabeth Warren’s most out-there moment was when she jumped to her feet and booed corporations that pay zero percent tax. It’s hardly the Bolshevik revolution, is it?

Elsewhere, Biden outlined the usual stuff: cancer is going to be cured, Covid is on its way out, infrastructure needs fixing, police must be held accountable, Xi Jinping should be afraid because “it’s never been a good bet to bet against America” (that one elicited chants of: “U-S-A! U-S-A!”) Raphael Warnock was the only man in the room wearing a suit that fit him, resplendent in gray. Love it or hate it, Kyrsten Sinema stole the show for the women’s side, dressed as she was in a stiff yellow statement-making possibly-dress-or-possibly-something-else-indescribable.

Biden wrapped up. He declared that the State of the Union was “strong” because, of course, America’s spirit is strong. He shouted a few times about how “WE’RE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,” at one point even pointing his finger. And then it was over, and we were left with the same two parties with whom we went into the chamber. For all his talk of bipartisanship, it’s still unclear if Biden can fashion something usable out of these odds and ends. At least it looks like Kevin feels the pain, too.