Here’s one way to prepare for President Obama’s State of the State Address, to be delivered Tuesday evening before a joint session of Congress and a national viewing audience: right before Mr. Obama enters the House chamber, take a glass and fill it to the hallway mark with your beverage of choice (that would be hemlock for George Will, no fan of this televised spectacle).
Now, take a look at the contents of the glass.
On the half-full side: this is history and tradition on display (though a President doesn’t have to do it this modern way – he could just as easily post an email and still be honoring the Constitution). As Barack Obama is a gifted speaker, the pomp and circumstance is right in his wheelhouse – he’ll look and sound presidential, even if you don’t care for the policies.
On the half-empty side: talk is what this President does most and too much, his critics contend – especially when it doesn’t jibe with the realities of an election year that historically is murder for the party in power. Beating up on congressional Republicans with regard to income inequality, immigration reform and gun control may rally the Democratic base, but it won’t produce any bills to sign.
After the address, there’s the matter of the Republican response – in the Obama years, a problematic exercise for the GOP in that the rebuttal invariably lacks the State of the Union’s political sex appeal. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivered it in 2009 – to lousy reviews. Former Virginia Gov. McDonnell took a crack at it in 2010, copying presidential production value. In 2011, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan took center stage in what turned out to be a preview of the 2012 presidential campaign. As for 2012, the GOP again went outside the beltway with former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who delivered a feisty speech assailing the President as a divider, not a uniter.
On Tuesday, Republicans are doing something different – the choice being Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking woman in the GOP’s majority caucus (and the first woman to give a response since Kathleen Sibelius did so in 2008).
What makes McMorris Rodgers an intriguing choice?
1) Biography. The congresswoman is the first member to give birth more than once while serving in Congress (two girls and a boy). Her son, Cole, suffers from Down Syndrome, prompting the congresswoman to co-found the bipartisan Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus. She’s also the descendent of pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail 160 years ago.
2) The Pivot. It’s no accident a party that couldn’t connect with women in 2012 – and still has it problems, as evidenced by Mike Huckabee’s awkward comments last week about female libidos – went with McMorris Rogers as official rebutter. Four months shy of her 45th birthday, she’s also a walk-up to a field of 2016 hopefuls that will be a generation younger than Mitt Romney and John McCain – at the time of their nominations, 71 and 65, respectively. Speaking of 2016, a good showing on Tuesday night puts McMorris Rogers on the short list of Republican running mates.
3) The Message. Obviously, the congresswoman will present herself through a lens of personal experiences: mother of three; daughter of Eastern Washington family farmers; a fifth-term congresswoman with a focus on families and small businesses. She’s also on the record as having called comprehensive immigration reform a “priority” in this year’s congressional session, begging the question of how the subject will fit into the party’s official response – and, for that matter, the GOP’s strategy for dealing with immigration reform heading into the fall election.
4) The Competition. McMorris Rodgers isn’t the only Republican slated to deliver a response on Tuesday – just the only one sanction by her party. Utah Sen. Mike Lee will speak on behalf of Tea Partiers (here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at possible themes). Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who gave last year’s Tea Party response, will also speak because, well, he’s Rand Paul and he wouldn’t miss a chance to keep himself in the presidential conversation. Three Republicans speaking at the same time: it won’t be the last time it happens in 2014.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter:@hooverwhalen