The Kaine Mutiny
Why responding to the State of the Union isn't the next best thing to giving it.
In 1996, Republicans thought they were being smart by choosing Bob Dole, their presumptive nominee, to respond to Clinton's State of the Union. Clinton turned in one of the best performances of his career. Dole gave his best shot—and dropped about a point a minute in the head-to-head opinion polls.
A year earlier, Republicans had turned to the best on-air talent in their party: once-and-future character actor Fred Thompson. Clinton himself fretted that Thompson's folksy charm would connect with middle America. We needn't have worried—that response was a dud, too.
One year, Republicans invited then-Gov. Christie Whitman to try a new format—a town hall from New Jersey. It looked like an adult education class on public access. Democrats have tried to vary the format with a tag team between congressional leaders. That hasn't worked, either.
Why is the response doomed to fall short, no matter who gives it? Consider the inherent disadvantages. First, it's a ten-minute rebuttal to an hour-long speech. By the time the opposition leader speaks, the television audience is desperate to go to sleep or change the channel to Sports Center.
Second, the contrast in settings is a killer. The State of the Union highlights all the president's majesty, as he speaks to a packed chamber of members who throng to shake his hand and applaud even his lamest lines. The rest of the year, the Founders' checks and balances are theoretically in effect—but on this night, the president looks down on Congress and the Supreme Court, sitting powerless in the well below. By contrast, the poor sap giving the official response is like a movie without a sound track—no buzz, no applause, no majesty.
With that much to overcome, an opposition party might seriously consider giving the time back, or ask to bank it for use a few days, weeks, or months later. We might try to avoid the contrast altogether: for example, by inviting Jon Stewart to give a 10-minute monologue, or letting Bill Clinton use the time to ask for contributions for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Then again, maybe Tim Kaine can find a way to make the best of it. "The Eyebrow is not one to trifle with," one observer wrote. "Fear its power." Considering what the country now thinks about the state of the union under Bush, an arched eyebrow might be the perfect Democratic response. ... 2:29 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006
Because of You: Fox Television is proud to announce that next Tuesday, the second hour of "American Idol" will present the best and worst of its Washington, D.C., auditions, as the judges give "Crazy George" one more chance to perform his medley, "State of the Union." Don't miss the show the Washington Post calls "America's Winning Losers"!
Alas, Bush's State of the Union will be missing the very element that "American Idol" offers far too much of: drama. White House aides have already given away the plot. Last week, Karl Rove delivered his own speech explaining that Republicans would spend the year attacking Democrats over national security. Today, the Post reports that the domestic centerpiece of Bush's address will be – surprise, surprise – tax cuts, this time for health care.
There's a reason that shows like "West Wing" get cancelled after seven years: All but the most loyal viewers tire of seeing the same old formula. Somewhere in America, there may be an unsuspecting voter who has forgotten that President Bush loves to cut taxes and thinks Democrats are wimps. But most of us in either party know that speech by heart, and would rather use the extra hour to learn something new – like which undeserving wannabe Paula Abdul will let through this week, or how star tailback Shaun Alexander of the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks came to love chess.
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.