SHARE

Give a speech. It should be a short response to the pre­ceding 75-minute address, which you watched in real-time, knowing almost nothing about its con­tents beforehand. The entire nation will watch, or at least those who haven’t switched back to college bas­ketball. Don’t mess it up, or it could wreck your career.

That was first-term Sen. Marco Rubio’s job on Tuesday, as he delivered the GOP response to Pres­ident Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. It’s a near-impos­sible task.

The response to the State of the Union Address began first in 1966, and has been an annual tra­dition since 1982. The Con­sti­tution does not require the pres­ident to make the report as a speech, and in 1801 Pres­ident Thomas Jef­ferson decided he would just submit a report in writing instead. A clerk read it to Con­gress. And while it’s hard to imagine that hap­pening in today’s pol­itics, the event has some flex­i­bility to it, and the opposing party should feel less con­strained by the response format.

It’s a Godzilla vs. Bambi matchup. The pres­ident has a captive audience in the palatial House chamber. He dic­tates the message, and even his political oppo­nents clap. When he’s done waxing poetic about high-speed rail, the tele­vision net­works cut to the response — and there’s Rubio coming to you live from — wait, where is he? He’s alone in a dimly lit room without a podium and you’re half-expecting him to hold up today’s New York Times and tell you he’s trapped in a hostage sit­u­ation. Perhaps he’d prefer that. Instead, he has to attack every­thing the pres­ident just said without looking like a gloomy jerk from what could be a bunker or his mom’s basement.

Afterward, the Tea Party delivers its State of the Union Response. Sen. Rand Paul gets to dis­parage both Rubio and Obama. For a party often crit­i­cized for its dis­unity, two speeches from the same side of the aisle sure seems like a bone­headed idea.

Rubio fared extra­or­di­narily well, though almost no one called it his best speech. The most mem­o­rable moment, immor­talized now in slow motion on YouTube, was his des­perate leftward lurch to a Poland Springs water bottle to alle­viate his dry throat. Few have for­gotten Gov. Bobby Jindal’s poor per­for­mance in 2009, and few remember Gov. Mitch Daniels’ from last year. The format deserves some blame.

Ditching the response would have political ram­i­fi­ca­tions. But maybe the Repub­licans should do the unthinkable — channel their inner Jef­ferson — and find a better, simpler way to com­mu­nicate their message.