Why in the world would any story about this year’s State of the Union ritual start with a reminiscence about Bill Clinton from three decades ago?
Because love him or loathe him, the shared judgment of the political class is he changed a whole lot of standards for how Washington operates. And one of the first ways he did so was way back in 1985, transforming how the opposition party presents its rebuttal to the president’s address.
In the first 20 years after the speech was moved to prime time, the party out of the White House relied exclusively on prominent congressional figures to provide the official televised response. But the Democrats decided to try something different after their drubbing in Ronald Reagan’s re-election. And after Warren Beatty turned them down, they settled on the 39-year-old governor of Arkansas to take the lead in selling a newly moderated message. With Genesis playing in the background, Clinton talked of polices for “building bridges to the 21st century,” a rhetorical theme for a presidency that started just eight years later.
GOP Accuses Obama of Empty Words Ahead of SOTU
None of the subsequent responders has matched Clinton’s ultimate electoral triumph, though one has a viable shot this year and others have attained serious prominence. More often than not, however, their highly anticipated career trajectories have stalled or started to decline after their nationally televised debuts.
Republican Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina, in other words, is only hours away from getting judged as either anointed or accursed.
A year after Clinton, the Democrats went back to the statehouses in search of two more rising stars, Lt. Gov. Harriet Woods of Missouri and Gov. Chuck Robb of Virginia. She was the solid favorite for an open Senate seat but ended up losing decisively. He cruised into the Senate awash in predictions he’d someday join his father-in-law, Lyndon B. Johnson, as an Oval Office occupant; soon after, he was seriously tarnished by allegations of campaign malfeasance and personal indiscretion (he admitted receiving a back rub, but no more, from a beauty queen) and was defeated after two terms.
Republicans took several different tacks for rebutting Clinton. They thought they were auditioning a potential first female GOP vice-presidential candidate when they tapped Gov. Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey in 1995, but her support for abortion rights and environmental regulation proved all wrong for where her party was headed. Two years later, the party tapped its only black member of Congress, J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, who became GOP Conference chairman but ended up retiring from the House at age 45 after just four terms.
In between, the prestige assignment was claimed by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who soon after secured the GOP presidential nomination, but his stiff and acerbic attack on Clinton did not help his uphill challenge that fall.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri pursued a similar strategy, hoping a knockout response to President George W. Bush in 2002 would boost his chances of becoming the Democratic challenger to Bush’s re-election. That didn’t happen.
Three governors chosen as up-and-coming voices for their party during the Bush years have lived up to the hype. Gary Locke of Washington (2003) went on to be Commerce secretary and ambassador to China in the Obama administration, in which Kathleen Sibelius (2008) spent five years as Health and Human Services secretary. Tim Kaine of Virginia (2006) endured loads of comic ridicule for his darting eyebrows, but he’s now a senator likely to get serious attention as a vice presidential option this year, just as he did eight years ago.
Similar prominence was also forecast — although quite incorrectly — for both of the other Virginians who delivered responses in the last decade. Jim Webb (2007) bagged the Senate after one term and got no traction for his brief comeback bid last year as a Democratic presidential candidate. Republican Bob McDonnell (2010) ended his term as governor indicted on corruption charges that now have him facing two years in federal prison.
To take to the air after President Barack Obama, Republicans have only found a single fresh face who’s undeniably gained influence since then: Speaker Paul D. Ryan was only the fiscally hawkish House Budget chairman when he took the assignment five years ago.
In contrast, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, among the earliest casualties of the current GOP presidential race, never had a better reputation than the day before his amateurishly pedantic 2009 presentation.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was tacitly permitted to give a second response in 2011, as spokesman for the GOP’s newly ascendant tea party wing. But her failure to pay much attention to the dominant TV camera in front of her remained a joke through her short-lived presidential campaign the next year, which effectively forced the end of her electoral career.
Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana (2012) never pulled the trigger on an expected national quest and has settled for the presidency of Purdue University.
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington earned solid reviews two years ago. So did freshman Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa last year, despite her meme-worthy description of a modest upbringing wearing “plastic bread bags” over her single pair of school shoes on snowy days.
Those women hoped to erase memories of the most awkwardly surreal awkward moment in State of the Union response history — when Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida became so cotton-mouthed in the middle of his bilingual remarks in 2013 that he lunged out of the camera frame to grab a bottle of water. But the vision lingers, in part because self-deprecating jokes about his thirst quenching have infused his presidential campaign — including in a TV spot last week.
Now all that history is confronting Haley. A week shy of her 44th birthday, she’s female, Southern and Indian-American. She won her second term with 56 percent in 2014 and enjoys an 81 percent approval rating from Republicans in her state, proof that her efforts last year to get the Confederate flag off public buildings in South Carolina haven’t harmed her with conservatives.
Talk about her as the next vice-presidential nominee is intensifying. Now she just needs to remember to refrain from arching her eyebrows, focus on the monitor that matters, pace her words — and slake her throat before she starts talking. What she actually says really may not matter.
Did Haley live up to expectations? See highlights from the her official response below and decide for yourself!
Contact the author at DavidHawkings@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @davidhawkings
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