There has been some concern that the GOP overdid its response to the State of the Union address by offering several unofficial responses in addition to the official presentation from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Perhaps some voters will think the Republicans look chaotic or undisciplined by failing to unite behind a single party spokeswoman, or the more fiery speeches from the likes of Senator Mike Lee of Utah (delivering the Tea Party response) will drown out McMorris Rodgers’ low-key comfy-chair chat.
Given that the SOTU itself is an overblown political charade that rarely makes a lasting impression, and this particular speech is going to fade from memory even faster than most, it’s doubtful there will be any lasting fallout from mistakes made by the Republicans. At worst, they would miss an opportunity. Some observers think they played it just right with the warm, friendly, properly hydrated McMorris Rodgers, re-positioning the party to make inroads with voters that took a pass on presidential candidate Mitt Romney – who was basically her mirror image – while raising the profile of a young rising star. Others criticized her speech as boring and vague, and a bit too calculated in its effort to poach some of those single women away from the Democrats. Instead of going in for the kill against a weak and desperate Barack Obama, the Republicans let him off the mat, implicitly agreeing with some of his campaign themes while gently suggesting he doesn’t mean a lot of what he said, and the GOP is a better choice to deliver on what the President promised.
Obama was small and petty – it’s all about him, his phone, and his pen now; he’s basically dumping his party’s congressional representatives like unwanted ballast to get a little more altitude in the polls for himself, and they applauded him for doing it, because they know they’re in deep trouble if they roll into the midterm elections with an unpopular President hanging around their necks. McMorris Rodgers was big-picture and soft-focus.
Both the tone and substance of the GOP response should be considered. I have to admit I thought her tone was a little soporific, but I’m not really the audience she was targeting. I think Barack Obama’s Mussolini Lite routine is boring as hell – wheezy platitudes and outright lies delivered as if he can still see those phony Olympian columns behind him – but he’s trying to make every 30-second YouTube clip culled from his speeches sound exciting, and it probably works with the Low Information Voters. Will random 30-second clips of wise and gentle Aunt Cathy get anyone’s attention?
The overall effect of her speech viewed in full, however, will probably accomplish the core objective of presenting the Republican Party in a friendly, personable way. If anyone was harsh and scary last night, it was Barack Obama with his bluster and callous indifference to the people suffering under ObamaCare. To paraphrase Sir Mix-a-Lot, Obama tossed and left those folks, but Aunt Cathy pulled up quick to retrieve them.
It should also be remembered that the response to the SOTU is always going to be a lower-key affair, because it’s delivered alone in a quiet room, not thundered from a podium before a Party crowd that applauds on cue, and an audience salted with shout-out-ready human props. Sometimes the effort to deliver high-energy speeches from this mellow response setting look a bit ridiculous. McMorris Rodgers seemed comfortably aware of her surroundings.
Obama’s speech went through some last-minute rewrites in an obvious and clumsy attempt to swipe the Republicans’ “opportunity inequality” message, which Barack Obama very clearly does not believe in – he thinks “opportunity” is something the government locates by committee and doles out to the deserving. (One of George W. Bush’s speechwriters has already accused Team Obama of cutting and pasting much of the President’s “opportunity” talk from the 2007 State of the Union address.) McMorris Rodgers did a good job of taking it right back. Her line about making Washington play by the same rules the rest of us do was a mailed fist to King Barack’s gut, wrapped in a fluffy hand-made mitten.
Other than her jab about Obama’s policies making people’s lives harder with “unprecedented spending, higher taxes, and fewer jobs,” that was the only really hard shot McMorris Rodgers took. She didn’t castigate Obama for ignoring the plight of those left without doctors and insurance by ObamaCare, but she talked about them. She didn’t hit back against Obama’s laughable effort to take credit for an American energy boom that happened despite him, or call on him to stop his blockheaded pander to the environmental lobby and get the Keystone XL pipeline under way. She talked about how Republican belief in free-market economics is an expression of faith in the people – a really excellent point, and one I’ve made with some frequency myself – but she didn’t turn it around and explain how Obama’s penchant for top-down control, hyper-regulation, and re-distribution demonstrate a troubling lack of faith in his subjects.
She rolled off all the great things Republicans want to do for America, without mentioning that every bill she and her House colleagues sends to the Senate gets two in the chest from legislative hit man Harry Reid, sparing Obama the trouble of vetoing it. The opportunity to talk about Democrat obstructionism was passed up, and this would have been a good time to hammer that point, with the midterm elections coming up, and Obama running hard against a supposedly inert Congress. She mentioned how workforce decline is the major reason the headline unemployment numbers have ticked down, but she didn’t convey any sense of outrage that the President lied about the employment situation, or any great horror at what workforce decline means for America’s future. She gently presented the pro-life cause in sympathetic terms, but said nothing about the ugly combination of ideology and money that fuels the Democrats’ abortion extremism. She talked about the Republican plan for incremental immigration reform, beginning with border security, but didn’t mention the inconvenient truth that nobody in the right minds would trust the Administration to honor any border security commitments it makes, especially not after watching Obama treat his “settled health care law of the land” as though it were written in pencil on a cocktail napkin.
The objective was to keep just about everything stern and confrontational out of the official GOP response. Obama wants to pretend the Oval Office has been empty for the past five years; Rep. McMorris Rodgers obliged him. She accomplished her clear objectives as well as anyone delivering a SOTU response ever has, introducing herself to a national audience that will probably like her quite a bit. (Liberal commentators nervously awarding CMR’s speech high marks certainly seem to think so.) If you were having car trouble on a dark and stormy night, you would be very happy to see Cathy and her family pull up in a minivan and offer to help. Political parties have chosen far worse faces. It’ll be fun watching the Left try to strip her of her womanhood and humanity without coming off like disgusting ogres, if she ends up on the 2016 ticket.
Was this a smart example of staying out of Obama’s way while he destroys himself, or did the Republicans need to hit him harder, wiping out any public-relations gain he might have made from his own speech? McMorris Rodgers was essentially playing Obama’s game here, matching him platitude for platitude, rather than dismissing his speech as gibberish and talking straight to the American people. The American people don’t always like straight talk, although they know they’re supposed to insist on it. Grass-roots conservatives and Tea Party activists do value such talk, but they didn’t get much protein from the official GOP response, which will probably reinforce their suspicion that the GOP leadership wants to marginalize them, a suspicion also reinforced by GOP leaders openly discussing how much they’d like to marginalize them.
Nothing in the response to the SOTU hinted at the grass-roots energy that built the Republican wave of 2010. It would be a shame if the media has convinced Republicans to turn their backs on the people who gave them their greatest victories of the modern era. Now, if they could harmonize the appeal of both Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Mike Lee, they’d really be on to something… but conclusions will be drawn based on which of those Republicans was chosen to deliver the official State of the Union response.