State of the Union Response: Kiss of Death?

Delivering the response to the president's State of the Union address is not always a career builder.

Last year, I noted that the State of the Union response is a no-win proposition for the people who deliver it: usually high-visibility members of Congress, including senators initiating presidential campaigns. The response simply diminishes anyone who wants to achieve a status similar to the president. The setting alone emphasizes just how insignificant and unpresidential the responder is.

Oh, and forget about attempts to change the party image or to win arguments with the president. Hardly anyone watches the response; those who do are almost certainly die-hard partisans who the out-party doesn't have to win over. The State of the Union speech itself doesn't do much to move public opinion; it's nuts to think the response can.

I did find one strategy that has seemed surprisingly successful: using groups of obscure House members to give the response. Between the two parties, this approach has been tried a total of five times, and a remarkable number of those politicians have gone on to bigger and better things, including George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Barbara Boxer and Tom Harkin.

For whatever reason, that practice has fallen out of fashion, but the logic behind it is actually pretty strong. After all, giving a publicity bump to a member of the House is going to mean more than a same-sized boost for a senator - especially prominent senators running for president. They already have lots of ways of getting on national TV. Members of the House a few years away from a statewide campaign? Not so much. While anyone seeking equal status with the president will only wind up magnifying the status gap, obscure House members don't suffer that burden. In fact, they have a good chance of looking more important than they really are. Granted, they also have a chance of looking ridiculous (as both Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal recently learned). But at least there's a real upside to the risk.

So what's the Republican response plan this time around? They've successfully selected an obscure Member of the House: Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who as chair of the Republican conference has a reasonably important job within the House but is hardly well known nationally. On the other hand, as far as I know she's on the House leadership track, rather than being seen as a potential statewide candidate. But as least she'll be introduced to a new audience, including many Republican Party actors who aren't focused on the Hill and therefore don't know her yet, but who she may seek support from in the future.

I still think the better strategy is to get a group of obscure members, rather than just one. But at least Republicans aren't wasting the opportunity by giving a well-known presidential candidate a chance to stumble. Semi-success!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.