State of the Union Response Is Doomed

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Political scientist Arthur Lupia has a post today at the Monkey Cage urging Republicans to do a better job with their State of the Union responses, including adding a live audience of TV-friendly young people. Kevin Drum wonders why the parties haven't done something like this before.

Robert Costa tweets that at least one Republican operative believes a live audience doesn't work well. It's worth recalling that Republicans have tried this at least once (Christine Todd Whitman, in 1995), and no one seemed to think it was particularly successful.

Drum gets it right when he wonders (but unfortunately then dismisses) whether the parties haven't followed Lupia's suggestions because "the party wheelhorses [don't] care because they figure no one watches it anyway." That's the right answer. Or should be.

The parties have experimented with the response format over the years; mostly, all they've found is that by the time people have sat through the president's (long, long) speech, the last thing they want is to sit through another one. There's probably a partisan element to this, too. The people who tune in and then hang on to the bitter end of the SOTU are probably strong supporters of the president -- the people least likely to be receptive to the out-party's response. So again: What's the point?

Given that the SOTU doesn't really move public opinion for the president, it's hard to see the upside of the opposition's response, which is delivered to a far smaller audience. Moreover, what's really important about the president's speech are the signals he sends about the programs he supports; that's not as significant a factor in the response since far fewer political players in and out of government need to react to what Senator Marco Rubio or Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal or Cathy McMorris Rodgers signal.

All of which goes back to what I said last week. The best use of the out-party response is to throw some publicity where it might make a difference: to obscure but promising members of the House. Hey, some of those group responses from the Democrats in the 1980s even had slick production values (at least, the 1980s version of slick production values). But mostly, the response to the SOTU promises very little reward.

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

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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