Is there a more dangerous assignment for a rising party star to accept than a State of the Union rebuttal? Seriously, it’s hemlock. Tonight, in all fairness, would’ve been tough to pull off even if Bobby Jindal didn’t sound like Kenneth from “30 Rock,” or, in my favorite analogy of the evening, a third grader performing in his Thanksgiving play: Obama’s favorables are still roughly comparable to delicious, delicious beer’s; Republicans are widely perceived to be obstructionist naysayers; and, as Jon Cohn notes below, Americans are scared enough these days to prefer policy solutions to partisan sniping. But, holy crap, did Jindal blow it. I don’t even want to rehash the deadly obvious reasons why--just check out what the people who were supposed to like it are saying.
The real crime here is that Jindal, who’s clearly an ambitious guy, could’ve scanned recent history and decided to save himself the pain*. In all the heated discussions last summer about who Obama’s running mate should be, whenever Kathleen Sebelius’s name came up, people would talk about how impressive it is that she’s a strong Democratic voice in a conservative state and that she has true policy credentials--and then they’d say, But did you see her rebuttal? Similar deal with Tim Kaine, who was plagued by his dead fish performance in ’06. Gary Locke, Obama’s likely next pick for Commerce, gave such a bad speech six years ago that it’s a breathtaking act of charity that he’s been allowed to talk in public, in front of other people, with cameras around, again. Much of the blame, of course, rests with the individuals: These aren’t the most dynamic orators in the political world. But I think SOTU rebuttals are so consistently wretched for more systemic reasons. You arrive onscreen directly after the president, and the optics are terrible. Instead of addressing a joint session, you’re hanging out by yourself a room fit for a Bing Crosby Christmas special. Also, you’re consigned from the get-go into a defensive position, making it more difficult to pounce effectively. And by the time the president’s done speaking, the viewing public has endured about an hour of political oratory--well beyond most right-thinking people’s threshold. It takes a truly remarkable performance to stand out that late in the night.
The great recent exception, of course, came in 2007, when Jim Webb went full metal and excoriated the hobbled president and Republican brand. He was so good that commentators no less esteemed than Michael Tomasky and Jason Zengerle were talking him up as VP material a few days into his first Senate term. But Webb’s success was dependent on a happy confluence of temperament and timing: He spat hot fire when the nation, having just rejected the worst excesses of Bushism in the 2006 midterms, was finally ready for it. In other words, that kind of triumph is, by definition, going to be rare.
So, if you’re a scheming mid-level politician hoping to break into the bigs, perhaps you should suggest some high-profile legislation, or work on programs that will make your constituents happy, or pick issues to harp on that you feel will maximize your national exposure--but, for the love of all things nakedly ambitious, do not open yourself up to the indignities of the State of the Union rebuttal. There’s a squeaky little guy in Baton Rouge tonight who’d probably give you the same advice.
*I realize tonight’s speech wasn’t a State of the Union, but it may as well have been.