Tuesday, January 28, 2014

State Of The Union Day

Tonight, Barack Obama will give the annual State of the Union speech, so I hope you didn't have any big TV plans otherwise tonight. There appear to have been two broad schools of reporting on the runup: the expectation that Obama will be setting his sights lower than in past addresses, a result of Congressional gridlock that's forced him to bypass Congress somehow if he wants to actually get anything done; and the thing we'll be looking at here: the post-address response. The response has been drawing attention because there's been a recent string of rather disastrous responses, made all the more shocking because the response is generally given over to a big name from the opposition party. Bobby Jindal being compared to 30 Rock's Kenneth the page, and Marco Rubio awkwardly reaching for a glass of water mid-speech come immediately to mind.

I think it might be more instructional to take the entire history of response-givers and see if we can take anything from that, instead of just looking at the last couple. The first televised response was in 1966, so that's where we'll count from. We're counting only the English-language response, by the way, so the Spansh respondents that have recently popped up aren't included here.

1966: Everett Dirksen (R-IL), Gerald Ford (R-MI)
1967: Everett Dirksen (R-IL), Gerald Ford (R-MI)
1968: Thomas Kuchel (R-CA), Charles Percy (R-IL), Howard Baker (R-TN), Hugh Scott (R-PA), John Tower (R-TX), Peter Dominick (R-CO), Robert P. Griffin (R-MI), George Murphy (R-CA), William Steiger (R-WI), Gerald Ford (R-MI), Richard Poff (R-VA), George H.W. Bush (R-TX), Robert Mathias (R-CA), Charlotte Reid (R-IL), Albert Quie (R-MN), Melvin Laird (R-WI)
1969: No response
1970: William Proxmire (D-WI), Mike Mansfield (D-MT), Scoop Jackson (D-WA), Ed Muskie (D-ME), Al Gore (D-TN), Ralph Yarborough (D-TX), Philip Hart (D-MI), Donald Fraser (D-MN), Patsy Mink (D-HI), Carl Albert (D-OK), John McCormack (D-MA)
1971: Mike Mansfield (D-MT)
1972: William Proxmire (D-WI), Frank Church (D-ID), Thomas Eagleton (D-MO), Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX), Leonor Sullivan (D-MO), John Melcher (D-MT), John Brademas (D-IN), Martha Griffiths (D-MI), Ralph Metcalfe (D-IL), Carl Albert (D-OK), Hale Boggs (D-LA)
1973: No State of the Union
1974: Mike Mansfield (D-MT)
1975: Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), Carl Albert (D-OK)
1976: Ed Muskie (D-ME)
1977: No response
1978: Howard Baker (R-TN), John Rhodes (R-AZ)
1979: Howard Baker (R-TN), John Rhodes (R-AZ), Bob Dole (R-KS), Barber Conable (R-NY)
1980: Ted Stevens (R-AK), John Rhodes (R-AZ)
1981: No State of the Union
1982: Jerry Brown (D-CA), Don Reigle (D-MI), James Sasser (D-TN), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Gary Hart (D-CO), Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA), Alan Cranston (D-CA), Tip O'Neill (D-MA), Al Gore (D-TN)
1983: Robert Byrd (D-WV), Paul Tsongas (D-MA), Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Joe Biden (D-DE), Tom Daschle (D-SD), Barbara Kennelly (D-CT), George Miller (D-CA), Les AuCoin (D-OR), Paul Simon (D-IL), Timothy Wirth (D-CO), Bill Hefner (D-NC), Tip O'Neill (D-MA)
1984: Walter Mondale (D-MN), Joe Biden (D-DE), David Boren (D-OK), Carl Levin (D-MI), Max Baucus (D-MT), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Clairborne Pell (D-RI), Walter Huddleston (D-KY), Dante Fascell (D-FL), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), William Grey (D-PA), Tip O'Neill (D-MA)
1985: Bill Clinton (D-AR), Bob Graham (D-FL), Tip O'Neill (D-MA), Robert Byrd (D-WV)
1986: George Mitchell (D-ME), Harriett Woods (D-MO), Charles Robb (D-VA), Tom Daschle (D-SD), William Grey (D-PA)
1987: Robert Byrd (D-WV), Jim Wright (D-TX)
1988: Robert Byrd (D-WV), Jim Wright (D-TX)
1989: Jim Wright (D-TX), Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX)
1990: Tom Foley (D-WA)
1991: George Mitchell (D-ME)
1992: Tom Foley (D-WA)
1993: Bob Michel (R-IL)
1994: Bob Dole (R-KS)
1995: Christine Todd Whitman (R-NJ)
1996: Bob Dole (R-KS)
1997: J.C. Watts (R-OK)
1998: Trent Lott (R-MS)
1999: Jennifer Dunn (R-WA), Steve Largent (R-OK)
2000: Susan Collins (R-ME), Bill Frist (R-TN)
2001: Tom Daschle (D-SD), Dick Gephardt (D-MO)
2002: Tom Daschle (D-SD), Dick Gephardt (D-MO)
2003: Gary Locke (D-WA)
2004: Tom Daschle (D-SD), Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)
2005: Harry Reid (D-NV), Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)
2006: Tim Kaine (D-VA)
2007: Jim Webb (D-VA)
2008: Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS)
2009: Bobby Jindal (R-LA)
2010: Bob McDonnell (R-VA)
2011: Paul Ryan (R-WI)
2012: Mitch Daniels (R-IN)
2013: Marco Rubio (R-FL)
2014: Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA)

Going over this list, it quite simply isn't true that giving a State of the Union response is some sort of curse. You see three future Presidents- Ford, Bush 41, and Clinton- embedded in here, as well as future Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore. Many of these names have gone on to live out distinguished careers, or at least survive long enough to be able to give a lot more responses later on. Tom Daschle may have been voted out of Congress in 2004, the year of his final response, but Daschle had also given four other responses dating back to 1983. Robert Byrd gave responses on six different occasions in the 1980's. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi gave the response in 2005 and a decade later, they're both still leading their respective parties in their respective houses. You can get in and out of the thing and be perfectly fine afterward.

So what's gone wrong?

There was a theory when I posted the list on Fark that it's a matter of the Democrats sending up their leaders (Reid, Pelosi, Daschle, Foley, Wright, Byrd, Gephardt, Mitchell, O'Neill, etc.) while the Republicans send up their Presidential hopefuls (Ryan, Jindal, McDonnell, Daniels, Rubio, Dole, Baker, maybe Frist if you want to stretch it to its breaking point). But that doesn't really work out, because the Democratic leaders have had their own share of downfalls. Daschle did get defeated, after all, after his third response in four years. Tom Foley gave two responses, the last in 1992, when he became the first sitting Speaker of the House to get defeated for re-election since Galusha Grow in 1862. Gephardt's second of two responses was in 2002, and he went on to abandon his seat to run for President in 2004; he came up empty-handed. Jim Wright gave two responses in 1987 and 1988, and in 1989 surrendered his seat as Speaker, and then his seat in Congress due to an ethics scandal.

Look at the responses by those who've gone on to be President or Vice President. There is one thing they all have in common that you can see without even looking at the responses themselves: None of them gave their responses alone. (If you'd like to talk about the response itself, I'll send you over to this Q&A with 1995 respondent Christine Todd Whitman. We're focusing here on the technique.)

*Gerald Ford gave responses as House Minority Leader in 1966, 1967 and 1968. The first two were alongside Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen; the 1968 response was done by a team of 16 people, one of which was Ford.
*George H.W. Bush gave one response; it was also as part of the 1968 16-man team.
*Al Gore gave one response, in 1982. He was alongside ten other people.
*Joe Biden gave two responses, in 1983 and 1984. In 1983, he was part of a 12-person team. In 1984, the team was 13 strong.
*Bill Clinton gave one response, in 1985, alongside Bob Graham, Speaker Tip O'Neill and Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd.

They weren't just 'not alone'. All five gave a response on at least one occasion as part of a group of at least four people. All except Clinton gave a response as part of a team of at least 11 people. The mass response, though, has fallen out of favor, with 1986 being the last year that a team of more than two people has responded. Since 2006, all responses have been solo. And since 2006, the flameouts have gotten more common.

The obvious solution- other than to have good ideas, of course- is to give this year's respondent, Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, some teammates. But that isn't what's happening. Instead, there are competing unofficial responses from Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as a station the GOP will have set up for Republicans exiting the chamber to give on-the-spot responses via Vine and other media. If they were all joining together for the same response, at the very least they would be able to give each other some cover so that the chance of any one of them embarrassing themselves is lessened. They'd also be providing a more unified voice. But they're all competing instead, and thus presenting a more confused voice (not helped by trying to respond with a prewritten speech to a speech you don't know the exact content of beforehand), undermining each other. Each of them is going up alone, by themselves, in usually an empty room, against a President that has just spoken in front of a packed house and been applauded after every other sentence for the better part of an hour. Bob McDonnell, for his part, did try and handle the applause problem by holding his speech in Virginia's legislative chamber. But again, he was ultimately speaking alone. The President is the President. If he flubs a word or something, he's pretty safe from harm. If he needs to take a swig of water, he can wait for the next bout of applause. And people are focusing more on the actual content of his speech than the way in which it's given. The respondent does not have that kind of gaffe insurance. Something doesn't look right, you are getting memed to within an inch of your life, and what's more, you go down in flames all by yourself. There's nobody else up there to cover for whatever difficulties you might have. There's nobody to share the blame with. It's all on you.

If Paul, Lee and Cruz won't help, the next-best thing might be to at least send Speaker John Boehner, and whoever else might be loyal to Boehner at this point, to go help McMorris-Rodgers out. But that isn't what's happening.

Good luck, Cathy.

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