Every modern White House has invested an enormous amount of time and effort into crafting the strongest possible State of the Union address. But let’s not forget that the president’s opposing party has taken great pains to write carefully scripted SOTU responses, too.
Putting aside how many people are watching and/or open to persuasion, these official responses give the opposition party a rare opportunity: a national platform, carried by all the major networks, to say whatever it wishes to say. What’s the key message a party wants to share with millions of Americans? This is their chance to let us know.
At least it was.
Four years ago, for the first time, Americans got to hear three speeches instead of two. President Obama delivered the State of the Union address, which was followed by two opposition responses: one official message from the Republican Party, one from the Tea Party.
Tonight, meanwhile, will be a veritable free for all. There will be one Democrat, the president, enjoying a high-profile stage. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) will deliver the official Republican response.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), meanwhile, will deliver a Tea Party response. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will deliver his own response. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) will deliver an official Republican response in Spanish. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) will apparently deliver some kind of pre-buttal before the speech and its rebuttals.
As Rachel joked on the show last week, “If Republicanism was a religion, this would be the part called sectarian warfare.”
In the larger context, this sectarian warfare, now hard to miss, offers an interesting peek into the divisions that drive contemporary GOP politics.
Indeed, it wasn’t long ago that Republicans not only limited SOTU responses to one official message, party leaders wouldn’t have tolerated any other scenario. Republican lawmakers who deliberately chose to step on – or worse, contradict – their party’s scripted message risked raising the ire of party leaders and insiders. Only one SOTU response was given because no Republican in Congress would dare challenge – or even think to challenge – the party’s message operation.
Those norms have collapsed. Jeremy Peters had a good piece this morning, noting, “The shift speaks volumes about politics today: the value placed on the individual brand over the larger organization, and the way social media and technology have torn down barriers to fame and influence.”
“There is no clear leadership in the Republican Party right now, no clear direction or message, and no way to enforce discipline,” said Mark McKinnon, a veteran Republican strategist who has become an outspoken critic of his party. “And because there’s a vacuum, and no shortage of cameras, there are plenty of actors happy to audition.”
Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner, added, “The message development for the party and on Capitol Hill has been flipped. It used to be that congressional leadership could develop the broad outline of the party’s message, and everyone else could echo it. We’re no longer in a place where members are echoing leadership. They’re competing with leadership.”