Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The State of the "Response"

President Obama’s State of the Union speech was well written and well delivered. It was also carefully poll-tested, sprinkled with carefully couched political boasts and challenges to his critics. Because presidents get this grand stage with no time limit and plenty of “production value,” it has long been a perfect venue for campaigning. As a liberal, I enjoyed the speech, both for its policy content and its political effectiveness.

As a political scientist, I couldn’t help wonder why opposition parties don’t pass on their opportunity to deliver a partisan “response.” Speaking late at night from some location chosen for symbolic purpose, a bright light of the opposition party has maybe 10 minutes to try to dent the force of a president’s “close up.” Unlike the president, the person responding for the opposition party delivers an explicitly partisan political response. So, even though the president’s speech is always partisan and political, he has the advantage of doing it in a constitutionally designated way in the House Chamber with lots of official pomp and circumstance. Like most president’s, Obama never attacked his Republican opponents by name and delivered his sharp political blows just subtly enough to deny his opponents any useful campaign video. The person delivering the “response,” however, has none of these advantages.

As usual, last night’s effort by Governor Daniels was small, explicitly partisan and political, and inescapably bitter. Daniels is neither small nor bitter, but he had a mission that simply cannot be accomplished gracefully or thoughtfully by anyone. Forced to ignore the bulk of a president’s speech, the opposition party response must rely on what amounts to a “liar, liar” defense. Unable to take enough time to attack his target subtly or tactfully, Daniels was forced to make his charges too bluntly and without any substantiation.

I wonder when the parties will realize that this type of response is not useful to them. I also wonder why anyone with personal political ambition would agree to do it.


Larry Becker said...

I'm gonna go ahead and disagree with Jerold on this one.

1) I thought Daniels went out of his way to "appear" civil to Obama (complimenting his family and complimenting him for getting Osama, etc.).

2) The lies and distortions were surely there but Daniels has a delivery and demeanor that is quite civil (unlike say, Gingrich or Romney).

3) Daniels did serve his own political ends in that speech. If Romney loses in Florida (and, for the record, I think Romney is going to win Florida but still a long way to go there), the GOP is going to have a full-view freak-out. And at that moment, who is positioned to jump in and save the day?

Jonathan Keller said...

Fully recognizing the historic nature of this moment, I am forced to agree with Becker here. Daniels did an excellent job. Galaxies better than face plants like Jindal's, of course, but I think even better than Paul Ryan's last year, which was acceptably workmanlike. Overall, I think Daniels was pretty Willie Randolph-esque last night.

He helped the party and he helped himself. He made conservatism suddenly sound rational, reasonable, pragmatic, and decently American, I mean Midwestern -- as Larry says, a rhetorical and substantive register we haven't heard in a loooong time. If this is to be the face of the "loyal opposition," suddenly it doesn't sound so bad.

Jonathan Keller said...

Granted, it wasn't an upper-deck HR like this one:

William D. Adler said...

Meh. I thought Daniels was perfectly civil, but boring. Obama, on the other hand, started and ended strong, but the middle seemed like just another laundry list that was poll-tested within an inch of its life. Not my style, but I guess people go for it.

Jerold Duquette said...

Look, if you people aren't going to provide sycophantic praise then the heck with you!