For an up-and-coming politician, it is both a golden opportunity and an undeniable risk. Delivering the official party response to the president's State of the Union address means the chance to introduce oneself to a national audience, as well as the possibility of falling flat while doing so.
This year, the job of rebutting the president will fall upon freshman Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who first attracted national attention prominence for an ad touting her experience with hog castration. While seen as a rising GOP star, when House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced last week that the that 44-year-old would deliver the Republican response to State of the Union, it was a reminder that the party wants to reach out to women, young people, and of course those from Iowa. But when Boehner shielded Ernst from reporters' questions about what she might say, it highlighted the fact that being the standard bearer for a political party can trickier than it might first seem.
If Ernst's national audition is to go well on Tuesday, she would do well to avoid the gaffes made by her predecessors that left them looking amateurish, awkward and just downright bizarre. Here then are a few friendly tips on how to get through the response unscathed.
Drink water before, but not during, the response
Dry-mouth happens. Unfortunately for Florida Senator Marco Rubio, it happened big time during his rebuttal of Obama's 2013 State of the Union speech. Almost as soon as Rubio began delivering his praise for limited government it became clear that Rubio was in dire need of a few sips of water. Whether nerves, the heat from overhead lights, or a combination of both, Rubio struggled to annunciate his words, and then, 11 minutes into the 15 minute speech, looked to his left, leaned over while trying not break eye contact with the camera, grabbed a tiny water bottle, and awkwardly sipped it on live television. The next day, the drink, not Rubio's message, was all anyone talked about.
Delivery is everything
From the sing-song tone, to the stiff, read-from-the-teleprompter delivery, everything about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's 2009 response to the State of the Union distracted from the message the Republican party had hoped to put forth. Jindal's immigrant background seemed to qualify him to promote the party's big tent image, instead, the Brown- and Oxford-educated governor gave a folksy speech in a tone reminiscent of the 30 Rock character Kenneth the page, and was panned on the right and left. "This was not Bobby Jindal's greatest oratorical moment," Brit Hume said of the governor's "hello boys and girls" delivery. David Brooks labeled the governor's critique of the stimulus as the worst moments of the Great Recession "a disaster for the Republican Party."
Don't resort to gimmicks
Just months after Ronald Reagan carried 49 out of 50 states in the 1984 election, Democrats looked for a way to change the political narrative. Their big idea was a cringe-worthy infomercial hosted by the 38-year-old governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton that they ran following the 1985 State of the Union. Employing a focus group that paired ordinary Americans and Democratic politicians and openly discussed the party's problems connecting with voters, the 10-minute spot ended up reinforcing why Republicans had been so successful in the most recent election. Instead of listening to the responses from the focus group, the Democrats spent most of the time lecturing the everyday people on everything they felt they'd done for them.
Be more exciting than drying paint
If political speeches are to have any chance of leaving an impact upon a television audience, they must be delivered with, if not passion, then at least conviction. By picking then-Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as the messenger to deliver the Democrats' response to President George W. Bush's 2008 State of the Union address, the party got neither. "Wow, flat and boring, what state is she governor of again?" John Stewart said in response to Sebelius' emotionless, affect-free delivery.