Tonight the President of the United States of America will stride into a joint session of Congress to thunderous, bipartisan applause and take to the lofty dais from which he will deliver an address filled with goals, inspiration, conviction and occasional poetry to a waiting nation.
Then there’s the other guy.
Giving the response to the State of the Union address is an unenviable task. The pageantry of the presidency gives way to the comparatively modest and lonely address of a member of the opposition party. The State of the Union is all grandeur and “Hail to the Chief,” and the SOTU response is a sad trombone.
But, alas, someone has to do it, and in recent years, the national parties have seen fit to push their rising stars into the slot. This year is no different, as Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, a symbol of number-crunching confidence and youth from the competitive purple state of Wisconsin, will give the response.
But as those who’ve gone before Ryan prove, following the president is a task fraught with pitfalls.
In 2006, it was newly elected Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine responding to George W. Bush for the Democrats. He was the embodiment of a red state painted blue, the face of Democratic promise. Unfortunately, no one checked the face of promise for facial ticks, and Tim Kaine’s “wandering eyebrow” became the most memorable part of his address — a wayward chestnut caterpillar trying to exit stage left as Kaine spoke from the governor’s mansion in Richmond.
In 2007, newly elected Sen. Jim Webb (again a symbol of Democratic encroachment on traditional Republican territory) fared better than Kaine. His address, delivered in a Capitol Hill meeting room, was mercifully unmemorable aside from his indictment of a “mismanaged war” entered into “recklessly” by Bush. Democrats had found a blunt, martial messenger for their newly empowered ranks.
In 2008, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ wooden delivery prompted The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart to quip, “Wow, flat and boring. Which state is she governor of again?”
All three of these responses were delivered in empty rooms. For Kaine and Sebelius, a fire burned in the background, feebly foisting warmth onto a cold endeavor.
In 2009, Republicans proved they’d learned nothing from the previous three responses, and Gov. Bobby Jindal gave his response to President Barack Obama’s first address to a joint session standing alone in the cavernous rotunda of the Louisiana governor’s mansion. Jindal’s speech was not a SOTU response, as Obama’s speech was not technically a State of the Union address. The technicality may end up saving Jindal a bit of face, historically speaking, as his awkward, sing-songy speech is not mentioned in the official list of State of the Union responses. But the damage was done, as pundits dubbed the young, Indian-American governor a Kenneth the Page country bumpkin character.
It wasn’t until Jindal’s muscular and righteously critical response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer that he moved beyond the goofy reputation he earned for that one uncharacteristically goofy speech.
By 2010, someone finally figured out that speaking to a camera in a silent room after the president had spoken to a room of raucous reaction is not the best way to frame a message. Newly elected Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia arrived on the scene, a symbol of Republican reversal of the Obama wave, and he spoke to a crowd of 300 legislators, friends, and family in the Virginia House of Delegates.
It was a return to the style of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s response in 1995, given to a live audience in Trenton, N.J. and it worked. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who remembers exactly what McDonnell talked about, but the affair felt natural and far warmer than the preceding years, and that’s about as much as a response to the SOTU can hope for.
So, tonight the mostly thankless task falls to Ryan. Knives are already out for the young budget committee chairman, as Rep. Jan Schakowsky pre-emptively attacked his message on Huffington Post saying Americans will learn from the “personally congenial” Ryan how “dark his vision of America is for all but the super-rich.”
Ryan will face the same staging challenges as those who’ve come before him, but he may also have a more receptive audience than the SOTU responder usually has. Three national polls conducted in January show pluralities or majorities of the American people want significant changes or repeal for the health care law enacted by Democrats in 2010. Some 71 percent of Americans oppose a debt-ceiling increase, the hook on which Ryan will no doubt hang his argument about our dire fiscal situation and the need to make cuts. A CBS poll showed 56 percent of Americans say the government needs to “deal with the deficit now” instead of putting it off. Even a majority of young voters, who are more likely to be liberal than almost any other demographic, put the deficit in their top three concerns in 2010 and told Harvard researchers the president should keep the deficit down, even if it means a slower economic recovery.
This year, there’s a chance a stark, tough-love presentation of our fiscal situation from a likeable numbers guy might actually compare favorably to a laundry list of billion-dollar spending priorities from the president.
As long as Ryan can keep his eyebrows in check.