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State Of The Union Rebuttals: What's The Point Of These Things, Anyway?

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STATE OF THE UNION RESPONSE
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 13: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., conducts a press conference at the RNC with House republican leaders. She will be delivering the GOP's official response to President Barack Obama's State Of The Union Address on Tuesday, January 28, 2014. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) | Tom Williams via Getty Images

As we've previously discussed in this space, State of the Union addresses are mostly useless. The pageantry is nice, and the speech itself provides adequate fodder for pundits to offer pseudo-analysis, but that's about it. Nia-Malika Henderson and Felicia Sonmez got it right in 2013 when they described the state of the State of the Union address as "rarely" moving "public opinion" and just as infrequently leading "to the kind of broad legislative accomplishments that presidents propose."

"For all the ritual and attention surrounding these speeches," they write, "the State of the Union is, well, sort of lame."

Pretty much! That said, if you really want to get deep into the world of rapidly diminishing returns, allow me to offer something even lamer: the now-traditional "response" or "rebuttal" to the State of the Union presented by the opposition party immediately following the president's oration. These might be the lamest political exercises in America.

You wouldn't be faulted for not knowing that these "responses" are steeped in a tradition dating back to 1966, when the dynamic duo of Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and then-Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) got this party popping by responding to President Lyndon Johnson's address. After all, it's really cable news and the political media's overarching hunger for freakshow-style conflict that has truly elevated the "response to the State of the Union" to the level of Officially Sanctioned American Pseudo-Event. In recent years, this thankless and not-particularly easy job has been handed to someone generally held to be a political up-and-comer with a bright future ahead of him or her. Ford, along with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, are the three responders who went on to be president, so there's a persistent notion that the spot is a springboard for those with larger ambitions. (We tend to forget that many more rebutt-heads go on to be Dick Gephardt.)

It's no wonder that these responses often fail to deliver on that career-making promise: They never quite seem to work. There is always something a little off about them, even when they are competently delivered -- which, by God, is not always!

Part of the problem, of course, is that the responses are not just inextricably tied to the lameness of State of the Union, but are incapable of matching the pomp of the main event. It's impossible to compete with the president, speaking in a hallowed, nostalgia-fueling space to the nation's most powerful policymakers. The State of the Union may be a load of hot air, but it is, at the very least, hot air belched into a legitimate arena. The ensuing rebuttals always tend to start from a disadvantage. In 2010, the GOP attempted to level the playing field by allowing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to deliver his rebuttal in the crowded chamber of the Virginia House of Delegates, an idea that probably looked good in theory but came off as "trying too hard" in its execution. The GOP ended up mothballing the concept.

But the larger problem with these rebuttals and responses is that they aren't actually rebuttals or responses! Not in the classic rhetorical definition of those words, anyway. Yes, the opposition party offers a slate of generic criticisms and may helpfully advance its own policy agenda, but the speech is never actually rooted in the specific content of the preceding oration, so it can't help but fail to live up to its billing.

To my mind, a true rebuttal would flow from point to point, grappling precisely with the president's contentions. A true response would signal a desire to enter into negotiations on a range of policies and allow the opposition to state its terms. The first example would be more substantive and precise, the second ... well, that might actually be useful in spurring on an eventual agreement (dare I say... legislation?). But what we get instead is just another canned speech that's basically disassociated entirely from the material presented by the president. The only thing that ties the "response" to the State of the Union is the calendar.

I know, I know ... it's probably too much to ask the responders to make an effort to respond to the actual State of the Union address in the short amount of time they have at their disposal (although it's not clear anyone has actually tried). But that just leaves the responders and rebuttal-ers at a further disadvantage. Their effort has all of the oratorical passivity of any reactive thing, but without the benefit of genuinely reacting to anything. (I'd happily extend the responders 24 hours to work on a televised address of their own, to get closer to a true response/rebuttal, but I've not been given the authority over these things, alas.)

Given the doubly-lame nature of the rebuttals, it's no wonder that the lingering memories of past efforts tend to involve gaffes and foibles, to the extent that you remember them at all. (With a gun to your head, would you have been able to identify the last Democrat to give a State of the Union rebuttal as Kathleen Sebelius? This hypothetical scenario is one of those rare occasions where saving your life depends on your not having much of one in the first place.)

My memory of then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's (D) 2006 response chiefly involves being fascinated by the migratory patterns of his febrile eyebrows. I recall Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's halting entrance, a la Kenneth from "30 Rock," before I remember the material fact that his 2009 response was not actually a response to a State of the Union address.

And of course, the most vivid memory of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's response was that he drank some water. Which was funny -- even to Rubio, who got the last laugh by raising $125,000 for his PAC on the sale of water bottles. That is literally the only example of a State of the Union response resulting in something we might conventionally describe as success. Of course, CNN -- in the way they have of responding to bright colors and strange noises -- were given to wondering aloud if Rubio's thirst was a "career-ender." (No, silly, it was Rubio's support for humane immigration reform that did that.)

What's new in the world of State of the Union responses for 2014? Well, instead of there being just one response, we are going to get three different rebuttals -- which probably pleases the people tasked with "rebranding" the Republican Party's image to no end. The GOP has formally named House Republican Conference Chairwoman and Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers as its responder. The Tea Party Express has tapped Utah Sen. Mike Lee to offer its rebuttal. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is going to deliver the Official Rand Paul Has Some Thoughts Response.

Somewhere, wherever he is hiding out, wayward Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) will also probably respond to the State of the Union to a captive audience of Star Wars action figures, or something. That will be the fun one.

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