Bryan Pick's blog

A Smarter Response to the State of the Union Address

After the election, I saw several Republicans discussing who should deliver the SOTU response speech.

No one should.

First, any speech is bound to suffer by comparison to a speech before a joint session of Congress, with the Supreme Court in attendance.  Republicans tried to capture some of the same spirit by having Bob McDonnell speak before a small crowd of supporters in the Virginia House of Delegates chamber, but if you can’t match the pomp and grandeur of the president, try to avoid a direct comparison.

Not only is the venue working against you, but the president is a nationally-elected official; no member of the opposition can have the same stature.  Appearing to try to match the president’s status just plays to his strengths.

And finally, a speech, to be delivered immediately after the president’s carefully-planned opening move, puts the responder at a disadvantage.  Since the response speech is written without knowing exactly what the president is going to say, what is supposed to be a criticism of the president’s speech or agenda is relayed in vague terms, not pointed responses.  A prepared speech can only talk past the president, appearing deaf to what the president just said in the marquee event.

This precious free airtime could be spent dismantling the president’s argument, then pivoting to counterattack and providing alternatives.

How can the opposition do this?

Take advantage of the fact that they have fewer restraints.

First, make it a table discussion with more than one responder.  As a suggestion, include at least one governor to remind the audience that there are independent sources of authority, laboratories of policy that should retain their power to handle local problems (a big-city mayor could also do), and also include a legislator representing the opposition in Congress to directly address the president’s agenda on the federal level.

This also takes the pressure off of any one person to speak for the party, and signals that the opposition is having a frank conversation, not speaking press-release style through the great filter of lawyers and focus-group-tested language.  Make good use of stars like Paul Ryan and Chris Christie who have shown they’re champs at off-the-cuff communication and aren’t afraid to take on big issues.  Bobby Jindal would have been far better suited to this than talking into a camera solo.

Second, use resources the president doesn’t have.  The president is limited by the tradition of giving his speech in the chamber of the House of Representatives, which only affords him a microphone, a teleprompter and an audience.  Instead of trying to beat the president at his own game, use a modern-looking studio, where the responders can make use of supporting staff and visual aids like charts and video.

And this extra content should come from a well-coordinated rapid-response team who provide ammunition for the response.

  • The model for responding to a speech in progress is liveblogging.  Certain people, by some mix of expertise, encyclopedic memory and quick wit, have proven they can tear apart a carefully-crafted speech in real time.  Identify these people—bloggers, political operatives, think-tankers—and (with their advance permission) borrow their best arguments and lines.
  • A media team would be responsible for matching the president’s remarks to earlier video and quotes from the president, his advisers and top congressional allies that contradicted the president’s SOTU message.  Anyone with a good memory and a well-ordered catalogue of video and/or transcripts can do this.  What could be more damaging than showing that the speech just delivered contained flip-flops?
  • To respond to specific policy proposals and claims, have a team of stat junkies, economists and others who can call up relevant charts and other visuals to help the responders on-screen.

This kind of rapid counter-offensive would be much more entertaining than the president’s exhausting, conventional address, giving viewers a good reason to stick around afterward.  And it would be much more effective than current efforts like sending out fact-check emails and post-speech press releases, the contents of which are read by only a tiny minority of people who saw the speech.

Don’t play to the president’s strengths. Use your own, leveraging all the media available to you that the president doesn’t have.

Interview with Tom Campbell, CA-GOV candidate

I spoke with Tom Campbell for over 45 minutes on a range of topics, and I’ve split my posts on that discussion into two posts, one here and one over at QandO. Here at The Next Right, I’m going to cover new media, elections, and the politics of enacting fiscal-conservative governance for a state like California. Over at QandO the topics have more to do with policy.

Tom Campbell isn’t your typical candidate.

Pitted against two Republican candidates with far less experience but much greater personal wealth, he’s opted to reach out directly to voters with new media, doing substantial blogging himself and even personally answering hundreds of questions about the gritty details of policy in the comment sections of his campaign website.

Going against the grain, he’s pushed to be far more specific about necessary painful budget cuts than his fellow Republicans. Still he appeals to demographics that have tilted Democrat – Northern Californians and young people – giving him a polling advantage over his fellow Republicans in a general election matchup.

Campbell isn’t some upstart: he has extensive experience in politics and government, having been elected to Congress five times starting in the late ’80s and having ran against Dianne Feinstein in 2000. He seems to be a contender in the race. So I was interested to hear his take on how things have changed and how he might translate electoral victory into governing power.

The Republican Strategy on the Budget

Today, Rep. Mike Pence and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Chair and Vice Chair of the House Republican Conference, led a blogger conference call.  The representatives stayed on point throughout the call:

  • On the economy generally and on the Democrats’ budget proposal specifically, they repeatedly said the Democrats are spending, borrowing and taxing too much.
  • They hammered on the Democrats’ proposal as bad for families and small businesses, including family farms.  They emphasized the role of small businesses in job creation.
  • They said they believed in free markets, fiscal restraint and tax relief as the keys to growth.
  • To that effect, they said Senate and House Republicans would be cooperating closely to promote those messages over the next several weeks and then unveil an alternative budget proposal of their own, which they promise will be a bold, clear contrast with that of the Democrats.

I expected something along these lines, and I don’t object to the sentiment or disagree with their diagnosis of the Democrats' budget.  They’ve identified what’s wrong with the Democrats’ plan, they’ve developed a strategy for responding with their own alternative, and they want to get everyone on record as either supporting the Democrats’ messy bill or the ideal Republican vision. 

The first question went to Quin Hillyer over at AmSpec, who asked how unified we can expect the GOP response to be if a Republican leader like Lamar Alexander broke to vote for the omnibus spending bill.  Pence acknowledged that he and Sen. Alexander had a difference of opinion on that one, but hastened to add that Sen. Alexander had voted for all the limiting amendments and had voted against the stimulus, etc.

For my part, I asked the representatives why, in light of Republicans’ so-far unsuccessful attempts to bring “clean” Republican versions of bills to the floor for debate, their alternative budget would be different.

Rep. Pence answered that Republicans would be given the opportunity on this one.  The Republican House leadership is working closely with the budget committee, and specifically with Rep. Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on that committee.  There are some limitations on how quickly they can move their alternative and get a CBO estimate done on it, but they’re going to use the interim to expose problems with the Democrats’ budget before unveiling their alternative.

Rep. Morris Rodgers said that it was important that it goes to the House floor for debate, and that they wanted the difference in approach to be clear to the American people, too.

As I said earlier, this is about what I expected – when your party is some 70 seats down in the House and retains only the most meager leverage in the Senate, having lost all credibility, you need to remind people that you at least remember what a conservative is supposed to want.

I just hope that’s not all they have in their playbook.  It’s much easier to present a principled image when you’re out of power and have no sway over whether a given bill will pass.

Assurances that the GOP will remain so principled when they regain a measure of power won’t carry a lot of weight without some kind of binding commitments – changing the structure and practices of the party rather than the short-term tactics.  After all, misbehavior that receded smoothly when the majority last changed hands can come back just as readily.  Easy come, easy go.

Syndicate content