Nikki Haley’s State of the Union rebuttal cannot succeed.

All Nikki Haley Can Do in Her SOTU Rebuttal Is Hope Not to Screw Up

All Nikki Haley Can Do in Her SOTU Rebuttal Is Hope Not to Screw Up

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Jan. 12 2016 5:30 AM

Good Luck, Nikki Haley!

Why the State of the Union rebuttal is one of the hardest jobs in Washington.

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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at the Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum, which she moderated, on Sept. 18, 2015, in Greenville, South Carolina.

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will be the last Republican with the misfortune to address the nation following a President Obama State of the Union address.

Jim Newell Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.

The SOTU rebuttal is a famously awful duty because the rebutter is denied the theatrics that make it a worthwhile activity for the president. The rebutter does not get to enjoy an introduction, like a boss, from the House sergeant-at-arms. She is not met with laudatory applause and handshakes from members of Congress, senators, Cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices. The rebutter does not enjoy mandatory ovations at the end of each line. All the rebutter can do is give a shorter statement in an empty room and pray that she has not come across as hilarious in some way that embarrasses the party that’s already out of power. This is not easy, because the rebuttal’s viewing audience is comprised almost entirely of members of the press, who are forced to watch the stupid rebuttal as part of their jobs, and members of the press are unusually mean-spirited creatures.

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There will be no official State of the Union in 2017, though whoever is president will get a chance to address a joint session of Congress shortly after his or her inauguration. If Democrats retain the presidency, Republicans can look forward to several more years of fielding fresh figures to serve as the random, saccharine voice that comes on TV after the president, saying “nuh-uh!” If Republicans win back the presidency, this will be their last rebuttal for a while. Not to make Gov. Haley nervous or anything, but revisiting some of the memorable rebuttals of the Obama years shows just how unusually difficult a task this is.

Bobby Jindal, 2009

Before Bobby Jindal was an ex-governor whose project to ruin his state as an advancement mechanism for his national political ambitions failed calamitously, he was a thirtysomething political prodigy whom party leaders hoped might serve as a counterweight to the Democrats’ new star, Barack Obama. Jindal, elected in 2007, was the subject of vice-presidential speculation in 2008 and later granted the opportunity to rebut President Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress in February, 2009. (It wasn’t technically a State of the Union, but it was basically the same thing.)

Re-reading Jindal’s speech now, it’s fun to remember that brief moment when Republicans didn’t publicly trash President Obama with each drawn breath. Until the health care debate really got moving later in 2009, there was actually fear among party leaders that criticizing the popular, newly installed president would backfire.

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Three past State of the Union Republican responses by Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Joni Ernst

Courtesy of C-Span, ABC, and Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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Jindal’s address did criticize Obama’s first major legislative victory as president, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but targeted its criticisms solely at “Democratic leaders in Congress” for “rejecting a [bipartisan] approach” toward that stimulus package. “Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need?” Jindal said. “That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did.” Jindal included, among the things we do not need, “$140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring,’ ” adding, to winces, “instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.” A volcano in Alaska erupted about a month later, offering a useful example of importance of volcano-monitoring monies.

But none of this is what Jindal’s speech is really remembered for. Jindal introduced himself to the country in a boyish, sing-songy voice that was roundly compared to that of Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock. That line about “volcano monitoring” was indicative of its flat humor. It was a flop that became a go-to lesson on the importance of first impressions in national politics.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, 2010

After winning election in 2009 in the newly purple state that Democrats had governed for the previous eight years, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was the latest rising star expected to save the GOP from its lowly depths. The party solved one of Jindal’s main problems—the eerily silent setting of a governor’s mansion hallway—by positioning McDonnell before a session of the Virginia House of Delegates. McDonnell gave a speech that no one remembers, which is a sign of a successful State of the Union rebuttal.

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McDonnell, who was supposed to restore the Obama-era Republican Party from being a petulant, reactionary force to one worthy again of presidential responsibilities, was later convicted of accepting bribes to buy a bunch of stuff. Barring a last-minute rescue from the Supreme Court, he will soon be in jail. But at least he’s not Bobby Jindal.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, 2011

The delightful gentlewoman from Minnesota chose to deliver her own, unofficial “Tea Party” rebuttal to President Obama in 2011. Republican Party leaders were thrilled with that decision, which distracted the viewing public from Rep. Paul’s Ryan’s boring, old official response.

The speech itself consisted of typically jazzed-up Bachmann verbiage. She employed charts to illustrate misleading arguments. (“In October of 2001,” she said, “our national unemployment rate was at 5.3 percent. In 2008, it was at 6.6 percent. But just eight months after President Obama promised lower unemployment, that rate spiked to a staggering 10.1 percent.” Sounds good; no further information to add there!) The address is mostly remembered, though, for how Bachmann didn’t look directly into the television camera, which Saturday Night Live went on to mock the next week.

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Sen. Marco Rubio, 2013

This guy had a drink of water. That is the most acutely memorable moment over seven years of rebuttals to President Obama’s State of the Union speeches. Rubio continues to joke about it, as he should. But further reporting from Politico years later confirmed that Rubio, a viable contender for the Republican presidential nomination, continues to drink water.

Will Gov. Haley drink water Tuesday night? Will she speak in a weird voice? Will she go to jail in the future for something unrelated? Will she not look into the camera? The less memorable she is, the better her own 2016 prospects will be.