State of the Union: Why so many GOP responders?

The official GOP speaker after the State of the Union address will be Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, but at least three others, including Sen. Rand Paul, will also be making speeches.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington speaks at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 14, 2012. Rodgers, the highest-ranking House GOP female, will be the official party speaker after the State of the Union address Tuesday night.

There will be multiple Republican responses to President Obama’s State of the Union address – so many that voters might need a scorecard to keep them all straight.

The official party speaker will be Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington. She was chosen in part to counter Democratic charges that the GOP wages a “war on women.” As the head of the House Republican Conference, Representative Rodgers is the highest-ranking House GOP female. She’s also the mother of three young kids and the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Then there is the official Spanish-speaking party responder. That will be Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida. She’ll essentially read a translation of Rodgers’s words, with personal anecdotes and references changed or edited out.

In recent years, the tea party wing of the GOP has proffered its own SOTU comments, and that’s continuing this year. Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah gets the nod here. Plus, this year Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is offering his personal response. We’re sure it’s just a coincidence that he’s a possible 2016 presidential contender.

There will also be somewhat less formal Republican Party comments from a host of tweeters and designated surrogates around the country. The National Republican Congressional Committee, for instance, is running a “SOTU Rapid Response” page on Twitter.

The obvious question about all this is “why"? Responding to a State of the Union speech isn’t easy: The president gets a grand setting with a large audience, and the responder gets a small room and static camera angles. Nor do the responders usually get much time to practice, which can lead to awkward moments. Last year, a thirsty Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida made an ill-advised duck and grab for a water bottle, leading to endless mockery on social media.

There’s also little evidence that a responder gets a political boost. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin gave the response in 2011, and that worked out well for him, at least in terms of boosting him onto a (losing) national ticket. But 2010? Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia. Yes, that’s the same Bob McDonnell who was just indicted on charges of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of illegal gifts.

When it comes to SOTU response, “The star of the moment rarely lasts as a star,” writes conservative-leaning Jennifer Rubin on her “Right Turn” Washington Post blog.

But the context for the opposition party response in this forum may be changing. That’s the quick answer to “why now”? The rise of social media and Web-based broadcasting means that even unofficial responders can reach a much larger, and more like-minded, audience than before. For instance, Senator Paul plans to blast out clips of his remarks on Twitter and Facebook to supporters around the country.

The Republican Party’s current internal divisions also play a role in the multiple responses. Tea party conservatives are competing with establishment Republicans for a bigger say in party policies. The libertarian hero Paul is trying to cut his own path to presidential contention.

Of course, the multiplicity of voices may make the GOP look divided. But that should not matter too much, according to Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, unless the tea party faction bolts and fields its own candidate for 2016.

“[T]hat’s highly unlikely, and we’ve seen plenty of instances of intra-party squabbling among Republicans in recent years even while they rally around their presidential nominee,” Dr. Masket writes on the “Mischiefs of Faction” political science blog.

The excitement quotient of these responses remains to be seen. But in general, the politicians given the job of SOTU follow-up could do a much better job of kicking things up a notch.

That would be good for the nation as a whole, according to Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That’s because a SOTU response is a rare opportunity for opposition parties to deliver an unfiltered message on all major networks in prime time.

He offers three suggestions. First, responding parties should remember that they are participating in a television program and marry their message with modern production techniques, instead of droning on while facing a camera. Second, they could add an audience to perk things up. Third, they should mix in lots of energetic young people to provide a contrast to the largely older audience that the president addresses on Capitol Hill.

“Because most citizens experience the SOTU response as a television program, we shouldn’t be surprised when they judge it harshly as such. The parties can do better,” Dr. Lupia writes on "The Monkey Cage” political science blog.

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