The response to the State of the Union is a trap
Dear Senator Rubio,
I am told that you are planning on giving the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address tonight. I am writing to urge you to call whomever it is you call about these things, say you have the flu, and stay home. Giving this speech is a thankless task that, at best, will moderately enhance your national standing. At worst, you will become Kenneth the... I mean, Bobby Jindal.
You see, Senator, you have a certain star power, which is why TIME put you on its cover and declared you the savior of the Republican Party. That cover story, and the coverage of you in recent months, has given the nation the impression that you are a big deal. You are presidential material. You are a force to be reckoned with. Now, some of your advisers have undoubtedly told you that giving the response to President Obama's State of the Union will confirm the growing impression that you are the Chosen One. And I suppose on some level they are right: You will have the opportunity to directly challenge the president on national television before the whole country, and you will be the lone voice speaking officially on behalf of the party.
What your advisers are not telling you is that giving this speech is a risk, to put it mildly. Here's the problem: If you go out there tonight after the president has spoken for an hour, the best-case scenario, and I do mean the best-case scenario, is that the national newspapers will include a picture of you on page four and mention what you said in, say, the fifth paragraph of their story about Obama's speech. Maybe Politico will say something nice about you, but you don't need to convince Politico that you are a star. The readers of Politico already know all about you. If you are smart, calm, cool, and collected — which I have no doubt you will be — you may make a largely positive impression on some guy in New Hampshire who will not watch the whole State of the Union (much less the response).
But there are drawbacks to even the best-case scenario. Here is the reality: Giving this speech is going to make you look positively small. This is not your fault. The networks will show Obama's entrance to the joint session — "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States!" — and they will show him being mobbed by all of these incredibly powerful people. Everything about the plush surroundings reminds the viewer of the glamour and grandiosity of his office. Literally, he is so powerful that every member of Congress shows up to hear what he has to say. And then they will show you, alone. You will look young and you will give an energetic speech that reminds everyone of how cool you are. But nevertheless, you will look like a desperate mosquito, while the president resembles King George.
And we haven't even gotten to the worse-case scenario. The worst-case scenario sees you plummet from Rising GOP Superstar to that guy that gave that awkward speech that no one watched until someone chopped it up and put it on YouTube. When Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave the Republican response to the president's first address to a joint session of Congress in February 2009, the political world had every reason to believe that Jindal was the future of the GOP. Hell, Jindal was you before you. But his handlers tried to get a little cute, and overnight Jindal went from GOP heavyweight to "Governor Kenneth the Page."
So here's my advice: Call in sick and have Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell do it. McConnell is the one who should be doing it, anyway. He isn't running for president, and he doesn't need to appear as powerful as the chief executive. He just needs to counter the points, lay out the vision, and get the hell out of there. Or, if you refuse to call in sick, give the speech on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning. By doing it on a separate day, at least you won't have to seem so secondary. At least it would be covered like it's own thing, as opposed to "oh, and here is the speaker who comes after the president's speech."
You really could be a star, Senator Rubio. Don't let yourself get Kennethed, please.
Jeb Golinkin is a 3L at the University of Texas School of Law and writes about U.S. politics and policy for TheWeek.com. From 2008 to 2011, he served as an editor and reporter for Frum Forum/New Majority. Follow him on Twitter (@JGolinkin) and email him at email@example.com.
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