Last night, the MOMocrats hosted a live blog of the State of the Union address and the Republican response. It was an inspiring speech by Obama and, I think, one of his best. The Republican response, however, had me out of my seat hollering at the TV, and not in a good way.
The State of the Union is, I think, a marvelous example of how inspiring our political system can be. I never fail to be moved when I hear the Congressional Cryer yell, "Madame (or Mister) Speaker, the President of the United States!" It doesn't matter whether the President in question is a Republican or a Democrat; it's always a thrilling experience. The State of the Union is required by Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient...." Since 1790, the State of the Union has been delivered approximately every 12 months.
All members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, are present, as are some of the Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President's Cabinet, with the exception of the designated survivor. (As an interesting side note, the designated survivor for last night's address was Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.) While Congress invites the President to attend, it is typical for the White House to invite guests as well. Last night, several military service and family members were in the box with Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden.
There are many perks to being President, one of which is having the military and military backdrops at your command. This use of the military and its service members as props became much more common during the term of George W. Bush. The most prominent being Bush's landing on an aircraft carrier and then speaking with a huge "Mission Accomplished" banner in the background.
Make no mistake, the State of the Union, while definitely a political event, is not a partisan political event. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and invited military guests attend as part of their service to our country. The rebuttal to the State of the Union is another animal entirely. It is completely partisan, begun only in 1966 and traditionally given by a representative from the party not currently occupying the White House.
Virginia Governor (of only 11 days) Bob McDonnell gave the Republican response from the Virginia capitol building in Richmond. McDonnell had an audience of mostly regular people. (Oh, and some Virginia Republican legislators. Bob apparently failed to invite any Democrats until about 2 hours before the drop dead RSVP time on the afternoon of the speech.) There were even people behind McDonnell on risers as if it were a political rally. The setting was a smart move on the part of Republican strategists. It gave McDonnell and audience responding to him, giving the speech a much more "official" and emotional appeal than canned studio speeches given in the past.
The content of McDonnell's speech was not surprising. It was rendered somewhat irrelevant by most of President Obama's speech, but that tends to be par for the course when you're responding to a speech you haven't yet read or viewed, with pre-loaded teleprompters. Plus, I read the rebuttal before the State of the Union began, so I knew what was coming. No, what surprised me was the individual sitting behind McDonnell and to our left.
Do you see that guy in Army green behind McDonnell? The individual in question is Staff Sergeant Robert Tenpenny, who apparently served with McDonnell's daughter in Iraq.
That's a problem.
Why is this a problem, you ask? Because military service members are prohibited from attending partisan political events in uniform.
I'd like to point you to Department of Defense Directive 1344:10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces on Active Duty. It states, in part, "It is DoD policy that a member of the Armed Forces (hereafter referred to as "member")(including members on active duty, members of the Reserve Components not on active duty, members of the National Guard even when in a non-Federal status, and retired members) is encouraged to carry out the obligations of a citizen."
While on active duty, members are prohibited from engaging in certain partisan political activities. Active duty members are, however, permitted to engage in such activities as voting, donating money to political parties and activities and expressing personal opinions as an individual. Under the DoD Directive, members are expressly permitted to "attend partisan and nonpartisan political meetings or rallies as a spectator when not in uniform." The key to that sentence being, when not in uniform.
Military members are expressly prohibited from appearing at partisan events in uniform to avoid the appearance of endorsement of a political party or issue. "Partisan political activity" under the directive is defined as "activity supporting or relating to candidates representing, or issues specifically identified with, national or State political parties and associated or ancillary organizations." Activity supporting or relating to issues specifically identified with national or state political parties is prohibited while in uniform.
I'm pretty darn sure Bob McDonnell's speech on behalf of the Republican Party falls under that definition.
In other words, SSG Tenpenny had no business being at Bob McDonnell's speech in uniform. He had every right to attend, and Bob McDonnell was even free to identify him as having served in Iraq with his daughter. But under no circumstances should SSG Tenpenny have been there in uniform.
Now, some may say that a rebuttal to the State of the Union is a fuzzy area. But under the DoD regulations, it's not. Directive 1344.10 is quite direct. In fact, section 188.8.131.52 even points out the only time a military service member can attend a partisan political event in uniform is, "as a member of a joint Armed Forces color guard at the opening ceremonies of the national conventions of the Republican, Democratic, or other political parties recognized by the Federal Elections Committee or as otherwise authorized by the Secretary concerned." That makes it pretty clear.
Now, I have no idea if SSG Tenpenny is retired or no longer on active duty. However, even if retired, he is prohibited from attending partisan events in uniform. Section 4.1.4 of the DoD Directive states:
Subject to any other restrictions in law, a member of the Armed Forces not on active duty may take the actions or participate in the activities permitted in subparagraph 4.1.1., and may take the actions and participate in the activities prohibited in subparagraph 4.1.2, provided the member is not in uniform and does not otherwise act in a manner that could reasonably give rise to the inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement.
(SSG Tenpenny was quite actively applauding during the speech, I might add.)
In other words, if SSG Tenpenny is still on active duty, he should be in trouble. He should also know better. Bob McDonnell is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. McDonnell should definitely know better. The question is, will anyone call him on it?