Here’s how Republicans can fix their terrible State of the Union responses

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This author will not waste time explaining how useless and obscene the annual State of the Union royal pageant is, nor how full of untruths, crushing debt, inviable proposals, and unfunded liabilities President Obama’s most recent iteration of the speech was this week. Instead, I’ll focus on the official Republican response given this year by newly elected US Senator from Iowa, Joni Ernst. If you can call it that.

As Shep Smith and Chris Wallace noted on the Fox News broadcast syndicated to their local affiliates, Obama spent several minutes than previous years after his delivery shaking hands in the chamber. This meant that the GOP response, officially scheduled for 5 minutes after the president leaves the room, would be pushed into local news broadcasts and therefore probably cut off in most television viewing markets. Intentional or not, that didn’t even give Republicans a chance to have their message heard, regardless of how good it may have been.

Fortunately, it wasn’t, so no one missed much. While Ernst is an accomplished, driven woman, the first to serve the state of Iowa in the US Senate, and served in Iraq as a decorated veteran of the Army National Guard, her speech was anything but. Instead of the fiery Midwest campaigner who vowed to “fix” Washington as she does the pigs on her Iowa farm, Ernst appeared to have been “fixed” herself. She was sealed in a cloistered room alone, smiling painfully, and to some audiences even at the wrong camera.

As to the message, the only memorable moments were her perhaps too-vivid description of plastic-wrapped shoes she had growing up poor in Iowa (which, added to the well-shared camo heels she wore to the event, produced the inevitable @JoniErnstShoes parody account) and the phrase “the new Republican majority you elected” she repeated several times to reinforce the legitimacy of her party’s message.

But Ernst isn’t alone in State of the Union rebuttal missteps. Governor Bobby Jindal famously gave a similarly robotic offering after President Obama’s first address in 2009. It was an inspired choice to have another accomplished person of color follow Obama first, but the reality could not have been more of a stale contrast with Obama’s impassioned delivery. Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, and Cathy McMorris-Rodgers more recently gave serviceable responses, but all suffered from the same uninspired delivery and setting. Marco Rubio gave the most well-delivered response of the last few years, but his thirst stole the show instead.

Only one GOP response during Obama’s two terms has hit it out of the park, due just as much to the place it was delivered as to the speech itself. In 2010 newly elected Virginia governor Bob McDonnell gave the official GOP response from the Virginia House chamber packed with fellow Republicans. The interactive audience reflected the president’s own address to Congress, with cheers and applause that enlivened the speech and speaker together. Republicans swept to a historic majority in the House less than 10 months later.

Republicans have one shot left. Next year is the final State of the Union address that President Obama will deliver, and it comes at the height of the 2016 presidential primary campaign. A well-delivered response in January could do wonders for the party’s image in November.

Felony convictions aside, McDonnell’s speech should be the model going forward. Conservatives are mostly federalists. Republicans have won historic gains in state legislatures and governorships. Now is the perfect time to use that to their advantage. The party should select a well-spoken, passionate governor to deliver the next State of the Union response from his or her state house full of sympathetic hands.

Though Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin will likely be campaigning for the White House and thus unfair selections for the official speech (unless one has unfathomably locked up the nomination by mid-January), I’m sure Greg Abbott of Texas or Susana Martinez of New Mexico would jump at the chance to show off their party’s ideas from an invigorated state level.


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