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Daily Archives: November 13, 2010

A Smarter Response to the State of the Union Address

[Note: You might have already seen this at The Next Right or mentioned at Politico.  I’m cross-posting here for more feedback and in the hope you’ll help spread the word.]

After the election, I saw several Republicans discussing who should deliver the SOTU response speech.

No one should.

First, any speech is bound to suffer by comparison to a speech before a joint session of Congress, with the Supreme Court in attendance.  Republicans tried to capture some of the same spirit by having Bob McDonnell speak before a small crowd of supporters in the Virginia House of Delegates chamber, but if you can’t match the pomp and grandeur of the president, try to avoid a direct comparison.

Not only is the venue working against you, but the president is a nationally-elected official; no member of the opposition can have the same stature.  Appearing to try to match the president’s status just plays to his strengths.

And finally, a speech, to be delivered immediately after the president’s carefully-planned opening move, puts the responder at a disadvantage.  Since the response speech is written without knowing exactly what the president is going to say, what is supposed to be a criticism of the president’s speech or agenda is relayed in vague terms, not pointed responses.  A prepared speech can only talk past the president, appearing deaf to what the president just said in the marquee event.

This precious free airtime could be spent dismantling the president’s argument, then pivoting to counterattack and providing alternatives.

How can the opposition do this?

Take advantage of the fact that they have fewer restraints.

First, make it a table discussion with more than one responder.  As a suggestion, include at least one governor to remind the audience that there are independent sources of authority, laboratories of policy that should retain their power to handle local problems (a big-city mayor could also do), and also include a legislator representing the opposition in Congress to directly address the president’s agenda on the federal level.

This also takes the pressure off of any one person to speak for the party, and signals that the opposition is having a frank conversation, not speaking press-release style through the great filter of lawyers and focus-group-tested language.  Make good use of stars like Paul Ryan and Chris Christie who have shown they’re champs at off-the-cuff communication and aren’t afraid to take on big issues.  Bobby Jindal would have been far better suited to this than talking into a camera solo.

Second, use resources the president doesn’t have.  The president is limited by the tradition of giving his speech in the chamber of the House of Representatives, which only affords him a microphone, a teleprompter and an audience.  Instead of trying to beat the president at his own game, use a modern-looking studio, where the responders can make use of supporting staff and visual aids like charts and video.

And this extra content should come from a well-coordinated rapid-response team who provide ammunition for the response.

  • The model for responding to a speech in progress is liveblogging.  Certain people, by some mix of expertise, encyclopedic memory and quick wit, have proven they can tear apart a carefully-crafted speech in real time.  Identify these people—bloggers, political operatives, think-tankers—and (with their advance permission) borrow their best arguments and lines.
  • A media team would be responsible for matching the president’s remarks to earlier video and quotes from the president, his advisers and top congressional allies that contradicted the president’s SOTU message.  Anyone with a good memory and a well-ordered catalogue of video and/or transcripts can do this.  What could be more damaging than showing that the speech just delivered contained flip-flops?
  • To respond to specific policy proposals and claims, have a team of stat junkies, economists and others who can call up relevant charts and other visuals to help the responders on-screen.

This kind of rapid counter-offensive would be much more entertaining than the president’s exhausting, conventional address, giving viewers a good reason to stick around afterward.  And it would be much more effective than current efforts like sending out fact-check emails and post-speech press releases, the contents of which are read by only a tiny minority of people who saw the speech.

Don’t play to the president’s strengths. Use your own, leveraging all the media available to you that the president doesn’t have.

Irony– liberals not happy with deficit commission report because liberals “not at the table”?

Seriously – that’s essentially the Matt Yglesias take on the recommendations published by the co-chairs of the president’s debt commission:

I’m not surprised that liberals don’t like the Simpson-Bowles proposals and I’m not surprised that people who aren’t liberal disagree with liberals about that. But I am surprised that there are people out there professing to be surprised that liberals are hostile to the proposal. But what are liberals supposed to think? It’s a proposal hashed out between a conservative Republican and a moderate Democrat. So of course liberals don’t like it. Imagine the conservative reaction to a deficit proposal written by Lincoln Chaffee and Russ Feingold.

Or instead of a hypothetical, how does Yglesias think the GOP would feel about a health care law written only by Democrats? To use his words, “if you want Republicans to like a deal, you need to invite Republicans to the table”. The irony, however, seems to have escaped him.

That’s not to say that pursuing a conservative-moderate deal was a bad idea. Self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a large margin and moderates are a much bigger force in the Democratic coalition than in the Republican one. So if you want a deal, appointing an orthodox conservative Republican and a moderate Democrat from North Carolina makes a lot of sense. But it also makes sense that liberals won’t be happy with the results.

But when the GOP was unhappy with the health care law, it was because they hated poor Americans and were the lackeys of the insurance companies, right?

~McQ

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Quote of the day–Social Security edition

It comes from Charles Blahous, one of the two private trustees for Social Security and Medicare explaining what has to be done for SS to “save” it in light of the release of the recommendations from the co-chairs:

Bottom line: You’re either for changes to the benefit formula, or you’re for big tax increases on the next generation. If you oppose benefit formula changes on the grounds that they are “cuts,” then you are for big tax increases. Period.

There it is.  While all this “outrage” and declarations of the panel’s recommendation being “unacceptable” circulate and build, the “bottom line” doesn’t change.  Blahous provides all the facts necessary to understand his statement.

Also keep in mind, as you see this discussed, that when the word “cuts” is used, it refers to not spending as much as projected, not necessarily actually cutting current spending.

While it is obvious that spending in defense and other discretionary spending is necessary, it is also just as obvious that the the major area of cuts has to come on the non-discretionary side.  The reluctance of politicians to address that notwithstanding, there isn’t a more perfect time than now (and one that may not come again in a generation) to actually do something. 

There is no “middle ground” concerning Social Security.  Either benefits are changed to accommodate revenue or incoming revenue has to be drastically increased.  That decision isn’t one which can’t be ignored.  At some point one of those two things must happen.  Why we won’t face that point head on and do what is necessary remains the most asked question.

The answer, of course, is political will.  And the bottom line there is our politicians have none when it comes to making hard and unpopular decisions.

~McQ

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