It’s the silliest job in politics, giving the opposition party’s response to the president’s State of the Union address. Marco Rubio attempted to deliver a rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union in 2013 and couldn’t take the heat, leaving the audience with a wonderful video of him drinking water from a child-sized water bottle. Democrat Steve Beshear tried to counter Trump’s first State of the Union in 2017 by delivering his response from a diner and instead produced one of the weirdest backdrops for a speech ever.
Personally, I am completely in favor of State of the Union responses, because they are one of the few opportunities left in American politics for creativity. To be sure, that creativity usually backfires in absolutely terrible ways, but that’s why I like it.
For party leaders, though, the State of the Union response is a headache of epic proportions. Whichever party doesn’t control the White House is forced to find a party member ambitious enough to accept the political risk and notoriety that accompanies the job, but not ambitious enough that choosing them will upset the delicate balance of competing interests within the party. This person must embody the party without seeming like they were chosen to specifically embody the party, and they must communicate the party’s platform while undermining that of the president.
To top it all off, the response to the State of the Union is delivered directly following the State of the Union itself. The intention is to draw in viewers from the State of the Union, but let’s be realistic here: How many Americans make it through the entire State of the Union? Of the viewers still present by the end of the speech, how many actually fell asleep five minutes into the speech and are still sleeping peacefully by the time the response comes on? And, if anyone is still awake, do they really want another speech about the exact same issues?
That last point raises another tough question: Should the response actually attempt to rebut what the president said? Doing so requires either predicting what the president will say about a multitude of issues, writing responses for each issue, selecting the appropriate responses and then somehow weaving them into a coherent narrative. Or, of course, the response can be given without a pre-written speech, which adds a whole new level of uncertainty. Alternately, the response can be pre-written and independent of the State of the Union. That tends to improve the quality of the speech, but it makes it strange to call it a response.
Here’s another problem: Who, exactly, is this speech meant to persuade, and what is it persuading them of? Different political parties have different approaches to winning elections: Republicans have a habit of appealing to their base, while Democrats prefer to campaign for the so-called “undecided” voters. Are either of those demographics watching the State of the Union? If so, what do they want to see in a response? To be honest, I don’t know, and multiple Google searches failed to turn up an answer (but feel free to email me if you know!).
In the absence of data about target demographics, we do have data on the effect of the State of the Union itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it’s a traditionally boring speech watched by very little of the population, the State of the Union has a small and largely temporary effect on public approval of the president. Although some of the legislative goals or requests put forth in State of the Union addresses make it into law, those goals and requests are often communicated to lawmakers before and after the speech itself, so it’s unclear how or why this particular speech affects their likelihood of success.
All of this is to say, I think it’s time to reimagine the response to the State of the Union. This is a hard argument for me to make, given the wonderful awkwardness of the whole event, but I’m doing it for America. If politicians want to give a response, then by all means they should. Democrats and Republicans should realize, however, that they do not have to coordinate such a response. If Democrats, for instance, really want to respond to Trump, they need to do something more newsworthy than an awkward response speech. Perhaps declare that next Tuesday is “Fact-Check the State of the Union Day” and devote an entire day to carefully responding to Trump, with the benefit of an entire week of preparation and research? Maybe spend the day tweeting awkwardly timed GIFs of Trump giving his speech accompanied by captions pointing out logical or factual problems with the speech? The point is, many of the problems surrounding the response speech stem from self-imposed time and structure constraints. It’s time to reinvent the response to the State of the Union.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.