Early Returns

How to Get the State of the Union Response Right

The president's speech gives Democrats a singular opportunity. Plus, Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

It's a tough act to follow.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump will deliver his first State of the Union speech in two weeks (his address to Congress last year wasn't a formal State of the Union, although there's no real difference). That means Democrats will need to decide what to do with the block of time the networks give them for a response. As it happens, there's a correct answer; we'll see whether they figure it out.

The key to the response is realizing how utterly useless it is by any conventional reckoning. Parties never win the argument against the president in their response, because they can't. The president gets the attention of the national political media, and a fair amount of attention from the public. The president gets all the ceremony of the occasion. The president is welcomed -- even Trump will almost certainly be welcomed -- by thunderous applause from both parties. A president who wants it can elicit bipartisan applause during the speech, too. The response gets none of that. 

So none of the standard calculations are relevant. No one cares about whatever symbolism is contained in the choice to deliver the response or the staging of it. Even if politics worked like some sort of idealized debate where the best arguments convinced the voters, the content of the speech would still be irrelevant because the only people watching are going to be extremely partisan Democrats, and not all that many of those. (For what it's worth, politics doesn't work like that; if it did, Trump would have lost in November, or more likely would never have been nominated in the first place. Nor should it work like that, anyway.)

So what can be done with the time? Give it to someone -- or, better, several someones -- who can use the publicity. If the only people paying attention are very loyal Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the working press, give them promising Democrats who could use a little more support from very loyal Democrats and a little more respect from the media. Not presidential candidates. Not congressional leaders. The people best able to capitalize on the publicity are obscure members of the House and other little-known politicians who the party believes have the potential to move up.

That's what the Democrats did in the 1980s for a while. They used a group response format, and in three years they included five members of the House who eventually became senators. One of them, Al Gore, even became vice president.

Of course, I'm not saying that the State of the Union responses were responsible for their later success. It's more likely that whoever selected those politicians had a good eye for talent and a good sense of where Democrats had opportunities in upcoming contests. But a little publicity probably gave at least a small boost to Gore, Barbara Boxer and Tom Harkin, all of whom participated in those group responses. 

Obviously there are easy symbolic advantages to group responses for the party, which probably wants to showcase its diversity and doesn't want to advertise its House and Senate leaders all that much. Really, that stuff is irrelevant: It'll produce some forgettable commentary, and then we'll all move on. But giving some promising but obscure politicians a little national exposure can put real dollars into their campaign war chests and help sell them to the national party network. And why not? 

1. Peter Hanson, Travis Johnston and Alex Theodoridis at the Monkey Cage on earmarks

2. Jesse Rhodes at the Monkey Cage on Republicans and voting rights.

3. Seth Masket on electability and how Trump shattered some myths. At least for now; let's see how the 2018 and 2020 cycles work out.

4. While Dave Hopkins thinks about the Democratic class of 2018 and how it might affect the succession question in the House for their party.

5. And Chryl Laird at Mischiefs of Faction on black voter turnout in 2016

Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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