The State of the Union Response is Not Strong
As Joni Ernst showed us last night, the official opposition party response to the State of the Union is almost always a train wreck. So why do we keep doing them?
The state of The State of the Union response is horrible.
On life support, actually. Just as landing the cover of Sports Illustrated tends to be a curse for promising young athletes, the honor of delivering a SOTU response seems to be some sort of jinx. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s awkward “Kenneth the Page” act in 2009 didn’t do him any favors, and possibly derailed a 2012 presidential bid. Sen. Marco Rubio’s otherwise fine 2013 speech was marred by his awkward reach for water (he would spend the next year or so embroiled in a damaging internecine fight over immigration reform).
The best response in recent memory probably came from then-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell... who was recently sentenced to prison (the curse will get you one way or another!) I thought last year’s response by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was quite strong, but in hindsight, it is essentially forgotten. (I’m picking on Republicans here, since they’ve delivered the last six responses; but this is a bipartisan phenomenon. Then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius delivered the 2008 Democratic response. She then went on to preside over the Obamacare rollout debacle.)
To be fair, much of the problem is structural. There is an inherent and insurmountable disadvantage for any member of the opposition party who is unfortunate enough to be tapped to deliver the official response. The president has the trappings of power. He is positioned from on high, and is frequently interrupted by applause.
Conversely, the response is usually delivered by a much less-seasoned politician in a much less grand milieu. This is typically a person sitting in a dark room by themselves looking into a camera. It’s almost destined to look shoddy in comparison to the spectacle of the State of the Union.
Making matters worse, in recent years we have witnessed the proliferation of multiple “responses” (remember the time Michele Bachmann delivered hers while appearing to look into the wrong camera?). If the goal is for the party out of power to have an opportunity to deliver an official response, then having multiple responses only muddies the message even more. (It also magnifies the opportunity for gaffes. Just last night, for example, Sen. Ted Cruz’s response was botched when someone uploaded a video of his “flubbed” response, and it was noted that only the Spanish version of the response mentioned immigration reform.)
Ironically, the proliferation of responses reinforces the point about this being an antiquated practice. Back in the old days, before social media, it probably made sense for networks to provide some equal time to respond to the president’s remarks.
But that was when we had three networks and they controlled the means of production and dissemination. Today, anyone can (and will) record and upload their thoughts. The notion that the party out of power might obtain a modicum of parity and have a chance for an “official” response is already out the window, meaning this is a pointless process with more potential downside than upside.
Which brings us to last night’s response, delivered by Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, “a mother, a soldier, and a newly elected senator from the great state of Iowa” famously known for castrating hogs. It’s fair to say she didn’t hit many high notes. The speech read well enough, and included populist heart-string tugs such as informing us that when she grew up, she had “only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry.”
That’s the kind of message that could resonate with a lot of Americans, but her delivery was too stilted. State of the Union responses “are always a challenge,” tweeted ex-Romney adviser Avik Roy, “but Joni Ernst sounds like she’s reading a speech instead of *delivering* a speech.” There were also jokes about her hair and shoes. In the end, though, she basically succeeded by virtue of not committing any embarrassing gaffes. “Joni Ernst survived. That is all she had to do. The #SOTU response is a death sentence,” noted MSNBC co-host Abby Huntsman.
Technically, we could and probably should put an end to both the State of the Union address and the response. But that won't happen, because the former helps the president. But the latter helps nobody. If the State of the Union is a pointless show with political benefits, then the State of the Union Response is a pointless show with more risk than reward. It’s time to put it out of its misery.