Republicans sour on State of the Union response


Republicans love that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a rising GOP star, has been picked to rebut President Obama’s final State of the Union address.

Some just don’t think the GOP response itself is an effective messaging tool anymore.

{mosads}They say the official response — typically delivered before a lone camera with no audience — seems anachronistic in the age of social media and small when compared to the president’s bully pulpit.

“I’m just not a big fan of the response. It’s hard to match the pageantry of the State of the Union, so why even try,” one House Republican told The Hill. “The tradition should be no response to the State of the Union.”

Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), who made a living off his oratory skills as an auctioneer and talk-radio host, said no one would miss the response if congressional leaders nixed it. And few can even recall who gave the GOP speech last year, or the year before. “It gets lost in the shuffle,” Long said.

“There is one guy or gal who gets to talk that night. And that’s the president,” chimed in GOP Rep. Mark Sanford, who preceded Haley as South Carolina governor.

Other Republicans who will be on hand for Obama’s address agreed that their party will be at a messaging disadvantage Tuesday night. And they point out there are plenty of other ways Republicans will be pushing back on Obama, from live tweeting inside the chamber to televised interviews from Statuary Hall.

But to skip the response — a tradition that dates back to the Lyndon B. Johnson administration — would be a wasted opportunity, they argued.

“It’s not the best platform — he’s president of the United States,” said Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas). “But we have a platform. I think we need to use it. I don’t think you need to give up ground to your opponent.”

The first response to a State of the Union address came in 1966 and was delivered by Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) and came after President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress.

Since then, a variety of forums have been used to deliver the response. In some cases, more than a dozen lawmakers have offered a response to the president, while separate responses have been given in Spanish and by lawmakers representing the Tea Party.

For the critical election year of 2016, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) picked Haley to give what’s officially billed as the “Republican address” — a move designed to portray the Grand Old Party as a young and diverse party.

The 43-year-old, two-term governor is the third woman in a row selected to give the GOP response, after House GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) in 2014 and freshman Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in 2015.

The daughter of immigrants from India, Haley broke several barriers when she was first elected governor in 2010: She became the Palmetto State’s first woman and minority to hold the office, and the youngest governor in the country.

Just last year, she attracted national headlines — and bipartisan praise — for leading the effort to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds in the wake of the Charleston church massacre.

“I think Nikki embodies a great Republican leader. She’s unified her state. She has reformed government. She is focused on growth and opportunity. And she has got a great personal story,” Ryan said at a news conference Thursday when asked by The Hill about his pick.

“So I think Nikki Haley is the perfect kind of reform-minded governor that embodies what new Republicans look like.”

Added Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong: “The Republican address to the nation will outline our priorities for creating a confident America after seven years of failed liberal policies.”

However, GOP critics lament that responses during the Obama era have had more to do with personalities and political aspirations rather than specific policy ideas.

While Haley already had been a contender in the 2016 vice presidential sweepstakes, her selection by Ryan and McConnell has fueled speculation that she’ll be tapped as the eventual GOP nominee’s running mate this summer.

“It’s become about the intrigue of will they blow it, like an Academy Award speech,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). “It’s a sideshow of what is this person going to do, rather than what are they going to say.”

Some who have gone before Haley have, indeed, blown it.

Many believe that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who like Haley is of Indian descent, ruined his presidential chances after his 2009 rebuttal was panned as “cheesy” and was likened to the awkward character Kenneth the Page from the show “30 Rock.” Jindal dropped out the presidential race in November.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) still hasn’t lived down his SOTU moment. Minutes into his televised response in 2013, Rubio’s mouth went dry and he was forced to lunge off camera to grab a bottle of water and quench his thirst. Rubio’s water break, however, didn’t have any lasting effect and he’s one of the top contenders to win the GOP nomination.

Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va.) gave a fine speech in 2010 but was later sentenced to prison after he was found guilty of public corruption.

“I tend to think there’s a lot more downside than there is upside,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who conceded he’s never even watched a GOP response. “Bobby Jindal probably killed his presidential aspirations with his speech several years back and Marco is still taking a little heat over his drinking habits.”

Still, GOP aides pointed out that at least one Republican who was tapped to deliver the response in recent years went on to greater successes: Paul Ryan gave the rebuttal in 2011, was picked as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate a year later, and was elected Speaker of the House just last fall.

Haley is expected to meet with Ryan on Saturday when she attends his presidential poverty forum in Columbia, S.C.  

Tags Barack Obama Bobby Jindal Cathy McMorris Rodgers Marco Rubio Nikki Haley Paul Ryan State of the Union
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