The State of the Union is a tightly scripted opportunity for the president to lay out his vision for the nation. And the rebuttal is a similarly choreographed platform for the opposition party to frame its agenda, too.
That is, unless the opposition party totally blows it. And botching the rebuttal has become something of a tradition for the GOP, coming as regularly every year as the State of the Union itself.
Part of the GOP's problem is that the party's official responders to President Obama have generally been ineffectual and uninspiring, remembered not for what they said but for what they did wrong. One has since fled politics; another is facing decades in prison on corruption charges. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is still in office, but has yet to live down the night he awkwardly lunged for a gulp of water on national television.
To be fair, the rebuttal is a tricky task. The speaker will always appear comparatively unimpressive alongside the president, which might explain the supposed responders' curse.
But the GOP has fared even worse with its rebuttals now that the Tea Party has added its own unsanctioned response to the mix. These bonus responses — indicative of the widening rift within the GOP between establishment types and the party's right wing — have undermined the official party message and sometimes cast the entire party in a negative light.
That problem may be even more pronounced this year, when three Republicans follow President Obama's address with their respective takes on the state of the nation. Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers will deliver the official rebuttal, followed by Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), who will give the Tea Party response. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who spoke for the Tea Party last year, will respond for himself this time.
"There is no clear leadership in the Republican Party right now, no clear direction or message, and no way to enforce discipline," GOP strategist Mark McKinnon tells The New York Times. "And because there's a vacuum, and no shortage of cameras, there are plenty of actors happy to audition."
In 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) — who founded the Tea Party Caucus the previous summer — delivered the inaugural Tea Party response. It did not go well. Immediately after Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) offered a sedate, wonky speech, Bachmann upstaged him with a rambling response in which she stared at the wrong camera.
The next day, Bachmann's wild eyes were a prominent political story. The GOP's agenda was not.
The following year, pizza mogul and failed president candidate Herman Cain spoke for the Tea Party. But more than muddy the official GOP line, he took a swipe at the party he once tried to represent in the White House, claiming "political elites" wanted to "marginalize this movement."
"It will not be denied," he added. "It is stronger and growing as much as ever before."
While the multiple responses are poor optics for the GOP as whole, they're nonetheless alluring to individual party members as a way to build their brands.
Major networks declined to air Paul's Tea Party response last year, and they won't show his rebuttal this time around either. Paul doesn't need them: His team plans to blast out his pre-taped response across social media — including on his new Snapchat account — to reach his devoted followers, who will then presumably pass along his message.
And the fact is that voters may respond more positively to Paul. Voter identification with the Republican Party is at an all-time low, while Independent voter identification has hit a record high. For a politician aiming to bolster his profile, a personal response may be more important than toeing the party line. But it's nonetheless detrimental to the party's need to present a clear contrast with the president.
The State of the Union rebuttal was once a unifying, if banal, moment for the opposition party to explain itself. It's now a spectacle of division, and this year's three-headed beast is no exception.
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