WASHINGTON— Republicans took multiple tries to deliver their reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.
In addition to the officially sanctioned Republican Party response by Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and a Spanish-language version by Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Tea Party Express faction continued its practice of delivering a separate speech, this year by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who had delivered the Tea Party Express response last year, staked out his own turf this year with a YouTube address. Nor was that the only response from his family. His father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, held an interactive town hall meeting with supporters during and after the address.
For a party fighting the perception it’s at war with itself, the competing speeches were an unwelcome and very public reminder of the divisions that remain. Although there were some common themes focused on the economy and smaller government, the rival addresses highlighted the intraparty battles that could undermine the GOP’s chances of winning key Senate contests this year.
“I wish we’d speak with one voice. I really do,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “The American people need to have one message from the Republican Party.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the first woman to deliver a Republican response to the presidential address, said party unity is not what it was when she rebutted President Clinton’s 1995 speech. “It’s pretty indicative of where the party is these days,” she said. “It’s spread all over the place, and that’s a challenge. It’s a real problem.”
In what was billed as the “Republican Address to the Nation,” McMorris Rodgers said she wanted to share “a more hopeful, Republican vision — one that empowers you, not the government.”
Like the other Republican responses, she acknowledged the growing opportunity gap among Americans, but blamed Obama. “Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder,” she said. “Republicans have plans to close the gap.”
She also addressed the troubled rollout of Obamacare and signaled the party would offer its own plan. “No, we shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but the president’s healthcare law is not working.”
In more brash terms, Lee outlined what he called a “new conservative reform agenda,” citing policy ideas from a rising generation of leaders, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Lee said the economic inequality Obama spoke of was the result of a government that “takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats and special interests.”
But rather than seek to build GOP support, Lee chastised his party, targeting his words to “those Americans who may feel they have been forgotten by both political parties.... To be fair, President Obama and his party did not create all of these problems. The Republican establishment in Washington can be just as out of touch as the Democratic establishment.”
In addition to Republican disunity, the multiplicity of responses was a byproduct of fast-growing social media platforms, which have opened new venues for old-fashioned political egos and allowed lawmakers to easily and cheaply circulate their opinions.
In the past, if more conservative Republicans wanted to get their own message out, they had to purchase 60 seconds of airtime on television networks. On Tuesday, Paul simply had to videotape some remarks at the Senate’s recording studio and have a staffer upload it to YouTube. The Tea Party Express streamed Lee’s address, delivered at the National Press Club, through its website, which also served as a way to collect email addresses from potential contributors.
Obama may have helped spawn the trend in 2008 when he, as a tech-savvy presidential candidate, released his personal response to George W. Bush’s final State of the Union address.
No matter how it’s done, staging a response that can compete with the pomp of a presidential address to Congress is always an impossible task for the party out of power — the political equivalent of watching a Super Bowl champion crowned at midfield, then cutting to the loser’s locker room to hear from the other team’s coach.
In recent years, Republican responses have been noted more for glitches and mishaps than for what was said. Remember Michele Bachmann looking into the wrong camera in 2011 when she delivered the Tea Party Express response? Marco Rubio’s awkward reach for a bottle of Poland Spring water last year?
The potential for an embarrassing viral moment like Rubio’s hasn’t dimmed other politicians’ interest in attempting to grab a bit of the spotlight, however. Although the Republican Party has complained that the tea party address overshadows its primary messenger, the GOP this year set up stations at the Capitol for rank-and-file members to record short video responses that can be posted to Vine, a Twitter-owned mobile app.
On the Democratic side, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) purchased TV airtime during this year’s speech coverage to highlight her personal campaign for stricter gun laws.
When asked whether the official rebuttal speech has outlived its usefulness, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who delivered the Democrats’ 2006 response to Bush, joked: “I think people question whether the State of the Union — and the response — has outlived its usefulness. You can make an argument either way.”