Everyone agrees that delivering the official opposition party response to the State of the Union address is a thankless, silly task. The Washington Post’s Ben Terris has a piece today about how everyone only remembers the funny and embarrassing moments from the responses, and not whatever political message the deliverer was trying to get across.
Some politicians do indeed show, in their mediocre responses, that they’re not ready for prime time. But the best retail politicians in the country would still look ridiculous, for obvious aesthetic and technical reasons:
“It’s a very hard job to be successful in,” said Republican consultant Alex Conant. “You’re following the president who has the best theater, the best visuals, and live audience. Then you cut from that to a direct-to-camera speech that often looks like a hostage video.”
“Hostage video” is a funny line, but there is something else that the beginning of every single response, Democratic or Republican, looks exactly like: The SNL “cold open.” That’s the last piece of live programming American audiences are still used to watching that doesn’t begin with some sort of introductory video or title sequence. As a result, the second you see the start of any response—abrupt cut to live video of people standing quietly in an over-lit studio or room—you are already primed to start laughing.
This is why Terris’s piece is headlined, “It’s the worst job in politics. But somebody has to do it.”
But... does somebody?
I am not saying ditch the response altogether. It’s totally free airtime on every network. Of course opposition party will always take it, even if they never do anything worthwhile with it. But there’s no reason to continue doing it one particular way.
The parties have played with the format in the past, with limited success. In 1995, Christine Todd Whitman, then the governor of New Jersey, attempted to match the grandeur of President Clinton’s venue by delivering her response from the New Jersey state assembly chamber in Trenton, before a packed and very noisy crowd. It... sort of worked? At least, it was better than talking in an empty room, to no one. In 2010 they sort of repeated the act, with then-Virginia governor Bob McDonnell following Barack Obama with a speech from the Virginia State Capitol (which, as was noted at the time, was also once the capitol building of the Confederate States of America).
Democrats, meanwhile, have sometimes tried the opposite approach, contrasting the president’s pomp with appearances at places designed to signal modest, everyday life. Last year, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear was at... a diner. Tonight, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (ugh) will deliver his response from... an auto body shop (ugh).
Far more interesting are the experiments from longer ago. In the early days of the response (a tradition that only dates back to the 1960s), members of Congress tried press conferences, sit-down interviews with news anchors, and even, in 1972, an hour-long call-in show in which nearly a dozen Democratic lawmakers took unrehearsed calls from voters.
But what we have all apparently forgotten is that there’s absolutely no reason to do it live, and for years, it wasn’t.
Democrats first did a pretaped show in 1970:
On February 8, Democratic members of Congress responded to President Richard Nixon’s annual message (which had taken place on January 22) with a 45-minute televised program that included comments from Senators William Proxmire (D-WI), Mike Mansfield (D-MT), Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA), Edmund Muskie (D-ME), Albert Gore (D-TN), Ralph Yarborough (D-TX), and Philip Hart (D-MI), and Representatives Donald Fraser (D-MN), Patsy Mink (D-HI), Carl Albert (D-OK), and John McCormack(D-MA), and informal discussions by senators and representatives with voters in various sections of the country.
Then, during the Reagan era, they regularly responded to his State of the Union addresses with pretaped programs, featuring multiple Democratic politicians and discussions with voters and other things more interesting than men woodenly reading from teleprompters in quiet rooms. People love to make fun of this response, from 1985, because it’s very cheesy and features, inexplicably, the music of Genesis, but it’s definitely more entertaining and watchable than any of the last dozen of these things:
It wasn’t until 1987, when Sen. Robert Byrd and Rep. Jim Wright went back to live speeches immediately following the president’s address, that that particular format was codified, and it’s been repeated every year since.
But that tradition should end tonight. The live speech is a suckers game. Do something pretaped. Get Bill Hyers to cut 30-minute documentary-like issue ads every year or something. I’m not saying doing that instead will have any appreciable electoral effect. It will still largely be a big waste of everyone’s time. But it would be less embarrassing and boring. Even if they play Genesis again.