03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

GOP Rebuttal: McDonnell Changes Optics, Plays It Safe

The State of the Union rebuttal is one of the lousiest gigs in all of politics. Until my colleague Sam Stein reminded me that Virginia Senator Jim Webb had done a halfway decent job with his in 2007, I couldn't think of a single one that was at all well-executed.

The last time a Virginia governor was tasked with the rebuttal, it was Tim Kaine, and the big takeaway was that the DNC was going to have to add a line item for eyebrow wrangling into their operational budget. And eleven months ago, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal turned in a "Kenneth from 30 Rock, Down with volcano monitoring" performance that earned him the cover of Career Suicide Quarterly.

But, like I said, it's a tough and thankless gig, one that usually falls to someone with an emerging political profile, who's subsequently left stranded alone in a room with a camera pointed at them, bereft of the ceremonial pomp of the State of the Union. And let's face it: it's never a real rebuttal. The opposition party doesn't really have the time to get into a whole lot of specific counterproposals and refutations. Typically, it's a mix of generic opposition, laced with party platform cliches.

Tonight, the rebuttal duties fell to newly-elected Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and -- as many observers have already noted -- he was armed with a pretty good plan to overcome the limitations of the gig. Rather than orate alone in front of a camera, McDonnell took refuge in the Virginia House of Delegates Chamber, and performed in front of an audience that wrapped around to the rear of his perch. It was a bit of stagecraft borrowed right from the Obama campaign, and it vastly improved the optics of the delivery.

And McDonnell even had one advantage Obama didn't have. Where Obama had to deliver his speech in front of both Republicans and Democrats, the chamber was filled not with the actual Virginia House of Delegates, but with about 300 hand-picked McDonnell supporters, eager to provide encouraging applause.

I wonder if the Virginia House of Delegates Chamber can be rented out for Bar Mitzvahs and Oscar Night parties? This is just something I'm going to have to check on. Nevertheless, the decision to inject a little bit of stagecraft into the rebuttal ended up being a wise choice, one that I imagine will become standard, going forward.

From there, McDonnell basically decided that he was not going to do anything else that might damage his career, by launching into a speech that could best be described in three words: safe, safe, and safe.

McDonnell began with a shout-out to Thomas Jefferson, praise for the president, and a self-deprecating joke (tame to the point of tranquilization) about how his sons were hoping he'd be quick, so that they could watch SportsCenter.

From there flowed a river of standard-issue bromides. More jobs would be nice. More taxes would be doubleplusungood. Obama's spending freeze proposal was "a laudable step, but a small one." The "excessive growth of government threatens our very liberty and prosperity." Health care bills should have fewer pages than the Twilight series. And if you want to know more, be sure to hit up the GOP and the RNC on Twitter and Facebook, and Friendster...are you still using Friendster? No? Okay, then forget about it.

We'll probably never be asked to consider the inherent conflict of this statement of McDonnell's:

"Today, the federal government is simply trying to do too much."

At any rate, a conservative state-level politician in Virginia talking about national politics more-or-less has to engage in massive hypocrisy. The economic engine of Virginia is the DC suburbs, with their prosperity driven by the federal government leviathan that directly and indirectly employs so many Virginians. And yet you can't very well do a Republican SOTU response without sneering at the idea that big government could ever possible bring about prosperity or improve anyone's lives. Naturally, even more predictable than the hypocrisy is the fact that none of the TV pundits on after his speech will note it.

Matt's correct, especially on the matter of this rather obvious observation being entirely lost on the political media.

McDonnell, naturally, offered the standard-issue GOP response to health care reform:

Republicans in Congress have offered legislation to reform healthcare, without shifting Medicaid costs to the states, without cutting Medicare, and without raising your taxes.

We will do that by implementing common sense reforms, like letting families and businesses buy health insurance policies across state lines, and ending frivolous lawsuits against doctors and hospitals that drive up the cost of your healthcare.

Those two ideas fall from the lips of Republican lawmakers like a broken record. But without strongly enforced Federal standards, deregulating the insurance markets in such a way would touch off a "race to the bottom" as insurers set up shop in the states which permitted the most lax consumer standards. And tort reform would lead to a miniscule drop in costs -- as Igor Volsky points out, "Malpractice costs represent less than half of 1% (0.46 percent of total health care expenditures)." But the good news, I guess, is that you can read all about this on Facebook.

The inherent problem of having to rebut a speech you haven't heard yet cropped up in another portion of McDonnell's address, specifically his call to energy independence:

All Americans agree, this nation must become more energy independent and secure.

We are blessed here in America with vast natural resources, and we must use them all.

Advances in technology can unleash more natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, and alternative energy to lower your utility bills.

Here in Virginia, we have the opportunity to be the first state on the East Coast to explore for and produce oil and natural gas offshore.

But this Administration's policies are delaying offshore production, hindering nuclear energy expansion, and seeking to impose job-killing cap and trade energy taxes.

Now is the time to adopt innovative energy policies that create jobs and lower energy prices.

While Obama professed nominal support for his cap and trade plan, the fact that the President had also enumerated an "all-of-the-above" approach to energy independence sort of stole the wind from McDonnell's sails in advance.

From there, McDonnell expressed agreement with Obama's education policy, agreement with Obama's Afghanistan deployment, and a muted break with the decision to try terrorists in civilian courts. Then there was a shout-out to Scott Brown, a shout-out to Scripture, a generic call for unity, and everyone was free to switch over to SportsCenter.

So: short, safe, packed with bromides, and infused with stagecraft that far outpaced McDonnell's predecessors in SOTU rebuttal. All in all, it's not a piece or oratory from which people will be grabbing significant pull-quotes. But it won't be easily turned into a joke, either. Basically, McDonnell succeeded in showing up, being handsome, avoiding saying anything remotely teabaggy, and offering a generic and presentable face of the GOP to the public. It was nothing too terribly dramatic. But if you've been paying attention to recent special Senate elections, you'll recognize that lately, for the GOP, that's been enough.

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