State of the Union: The Best Response is not a Formal Response

Last night, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin delivered the official “Republican Response” to the State of the Union (SOTU). I wish there were no official response, and that’s not because I didn’t want to hear from a Republican. I’m a Republican, and I’m even interested in some of Ryan’s ideas for controlling spending. I’d have the same position if the roles were reversed; that is, if a Republican were in the White House and a Democrat were responding.

An official response to the SOTU is a recent invention that seems to have no positive effect. I have found no public opinion data that support the usefulness of an official response. A quick, informal survey of some fellow political junkies indicates that no one recalls a single positive memorable moment from any official response. In fact, if people remember them at all, they remember gaffes or awkward moments. And if Ryan’s response was an exception, it’s just that—a rare exception.

Many—perhaps most—will not even realize there is such a speech as the response to the State of the Union. Most Americans have had their fill of a formal political speech by the time the response would start and have already changed channels.

The official response to the SOTU is a recent invention, beginning only in 1966, according to the Senate Historical Office, with Republican leaders in the House and Senate offering reactions to LBJ’s SOTU. Republicans continued the practice the following two years. Democrats responded to the Richard Nixon in 1970, but in a format that featured several legislators. The Democrats never offered another formal response to Nixon, and didn’t respond to the Ford SOTUs. Republicans didn’t respond to Carter until 1979.

Since 1982, neither party could resist the urge to respond to the SOTU. Even with various formats, both live and pre-recorded, featuring one, two or several legislators—and even once (1985) a forum with Democratic legislators and Democratic activists—the official responses have produced nothing but a string of forgotten events with no discernible influence on policy development.

While legislative leaders have done most of the responses, parties have mixed it up with governors, and legislators who were not in the leadership. Those picked to give the response were thought to be individuals either with national appeal or the possibility of extending the appeal of the party. For example, in 1995 Republicans picked New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, the first non-legislator, with the likely intention of appealing to female voters. In 1997, Republican J.C. Watts, the only African-American Republican member of Congress at the time, gave the response with the likely intention of appealing to minority voters.

Democrats, too, have picked governors, such as Gary Locke (Washington, 2003), Tim Kaine (Virginia, 2006), and Kathleen Sebelius (Kansas, 2008), and a legislator who was not in the leadership (Jim Webb, 2007).

Why does the event fail? Because no response can match the grandeur of the presidential address. Any attempt to replicate it, such as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s remarks in the Virginia House of Delegates Chamber last year, fails. McDonnell was ridiculed as playing a kind of presidential dress up. That’s the only aspect of his remarks widely remembered today. Even trying the opposite of the grandeur, such as speaking from a small room, looks minor league in comparison to speaking before a packed House Chamber.

Attempts to be informal and more personal can look ridiculous as well, such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in 2009, who moved while he talked. Jindal wasn’t suited to the format; few are. His political standing took a hit as he was regularly compared to the character Kenneth on NBC’s “30 Rock.” It didn’t help that Jindal criticized federal funding for earthquake detection when he was from a state recently hit by a natural disaster.

Television will only comment on the official response if there’s a gaffe or something that could be taken out of context. There’s virtually no way to win with an official response.

I’m not saying not to respond. I’m saying respond using the whole range of new media, from cable TV to social networking sites to talk radio. A formal response might have made sense in a time with few media options, but today it’s at best an outdated strategy. Parties have to speak where people are listening.