The State of the Union is a pretty big deal. For one night, the top tier of government (minus one or two cabinet secretaries) gathers to hear the president set his agenda for the upcoming year.
Since 1966, the minority party has offered a televised response to the address. Answering in opposition to the president can be a difficult task. Not only is there pressure to perform; the context of the response puts the speaker at a severe disadvantage.
The response is most often given in a room, to a camera, with no audience. One member of the opposition party is expected to compete with the spectacle that is the State of the Union. The speech is a media event that shows the president in a position of great power and influence.
As Alexander lays out, politics is all about the performance. The State of the Union is the perfect example of the president typified as a hero. Dozens of rounds of applause from the holders of all of the highest offices in government is a bit of a difficult act to follow.
In 2013, the task fell to rising Republican star Marco Rubio. Media coverage of his response focused on the awkward moment when Rubio reached off camera for a bottle of water. This moment highlights the difficulty members of the opposition face in crafting and delivering a message that lives up to expectations after the showing of power from the president just before.
How might Republicans morph their SOTU response to address these difficult circumstances?
For one thing, the GOP could change the structure of the response. Setting up a speech attracts all kinds of negative parallels between it and the presidential address.
But when there is no audience, the speaker appears flat and boring.
Governor Bob McDonnell tried to ameliorate this problem in 2010 when he offered the response in front of the Virginia legislature. This only made the comparison between the SOTU and the response more biting. A group of Virginia representatives is not exactly on the same level as the Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress.
Despite this problem, the format of delivering a speech to a camera without an audience reacting to it is an inevitably awkward task. Even presidents save this format for only rare and somber occasions. So how can the opposition expect to do well if it doesn’t have a format that plays well for the speech?
I suggest, as this blogger did, that the GOP try a roundtable format after next year’s SOTU. The roundtable would allow Republicans to elevate the exposure of several of their members, while removing the pressure being placed on any single person. With a diffuse collection (perhaps three to five), the coverage of the entire response wouldn’t rely on the dry mouth or awkward tone of the speaker.
A roundtable would change the nature of the response altogether. Watchers wouldn’t be expecting the spectacle of the State of the Union. A different venue would present a different set of expectations. It would allow different GOP stars to handle different topics that relate specifically to their experiences. It could also include some questions from the audience on social media and in a town hall setting. This discussion format might not pack the punch of the SOTU, but as past performances have shown, it is an almost insurmountable task to live up to the pomp and circumstance of the address. So instead, why not change the response to be something different entirely?
Imagine if names like Rubio, Christie, Ryan, Martinez and Jindal all gathered for an intellectual discussion on the president’s plans. It may present a logistical challenge to change the format, but I think it would be a worthwhile venture to experiment with it. Maybe someone should ask Bobby Jindal what he thinks.