WHEN THE most memorable moment of the capital's State of the Union evening involves rising Republican star Marco Rubio lunging for a water bottle, it's a sure sign this tradition is badly in need of rethinking.
Florida's freshman senator was not even the featured attraction. Rubio was delivering the Republican rebuttal to the main event, President Barack Obama's second nationally televised ceremonial address in less than a month, the first being his inaugural address.
Rubio's theme: Big government is bad, even though his parents benefited from Medicare. He was not alone in rebutting the president. Kentucky GOP freshman Sen. Rand Paul rebutted on behalf of the Tea Party movement, saying, in effect, a curse on both parties for spending too much, protecting sacred cows and making backroom deals.
By that time, citizens of the Eastern time zone were headed off to bed. In the West, they were undoubtedly watching the aftermath of the successful manhunt in California that led to the presumed death of alleged cop-killer Christopher Dorner in a burning cabin.
The State of the Union has developed the annoying ritual of the president's party standing and wildly cheering at each applause point while the other party sits grim-faced and arms folded. The Republicans cheer anything that sounds like a tax cut. Everybody cheers for the troops, whom the president committed to bring home from Afghanistan in substantial numbers.
The president called for broad, and largely unspecified, attacks on the deficit and income inequality and programs to boost the middle class. He again called for: immigration reform, which he may get; action on climate change, which he likely won't; and restrictions on gun violence, which tend to be driven by periodic shooting outrages like the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.
State of the Union addresses don't change the other party's collective mind. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who welcomed Obama to Washington by saying the Republicans' top priority was to make him a one-term president, dismissed the speech as "liberal boilerplate" filled with "gimmicks and tax hikes."
The Constitution says the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union" and shall recommend such measures as he deems "necessary and expedient." How and when this is done is up to the president. From Thomas Jefferson up to the age of TV and radio, this was most often done by written report.
As formulaic and ineffective as the State of the Union speech has become, it now serves a new and useful role: In an increasingly polarized Congress, it is one of the few time all the members gather together to be reminded of their common purpose.