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.