The Political Pageant

Rubio to Give the State of the Union Response

It's a hard speech to give well. Can Rubio do it right?

So Marco Rubio is going to give the official Republican response to the State of the Union. Jonathan Bernstein says, "Marco Rubio is going to give the Republican response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address this year. My only question: Why? Why would he want to do that?" Kevin Drum adds "If I were a rising political star, I would run, not walk, if party leaders asked me to give the SOTU response. My kid has a piano recital that night. It's my anniversary. Anything. I think you'd have to be nuts to agree to do this."

I agree that the SOTU response is very hard to give well--I once described a responder, current HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as having looked and sounded like an early-model Cylon. But I think there's a bigger mystery than why people agree to deliver the response, since the answer to that is obvious (politicians have huge optimism bias, or they'd never have started down this road in the first place). The real question is why they give such terrible responses.

The primary reason that SOTU responses are terrible: while the president is talking to a room full of people, the responder is talking to a camera. And unless you are really extraordinarily talented, talking to a camera looks robotic.

But there is an easy fix for this--two of them, in fact. The first is to practice the hell out of your response. And the second is to deliver it to a room full of people. This is how the only two decent responses in living memory--Barack Obama's, and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's--managed to transcend the traditional, disastrous, voder-vocoder style of the form.

No, they didn't match the full-on pageantry of the President's address, and of course, they suffered to some extent from speech-fatigue. But they brought themselves to the public's attention, marking themselves in peoples' memories as one of the young faces to watch come the next election cycle.

If Rubio is smart, he will use both these techniques: find a location where he can plausibly deliver the response, and fill it with people. And then deliver a speech that he has practiced for weeks, with every emotional gesture and more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger finger wag carefully choreographed by a team of crack media consultants. But if history is any guide, he will probably drone into the camera instead, and count it a victory if he narrowly avoids falling asleep in the middle of his own speech.