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.