Bobby Jindal has been selected to deliver the televised Republican response to Barack Obama’s Feb. 24 address to Congress, which means Jindal will now be the subject of a wave of news stories hyping him as a rising national star.
Take it away, New York Times: “The Louisiana governor has become one to watch among those in the next generation of leaders.”
For Jindal, this will probably be the main benefit of his moment in the spotlight. The content of opposition party responses tends to be forgotten by voters almost instantly (assuming it even registers with them in the first place), along with the identity of the speaker. It’s not quite the same type of exposure as a convention keynote address. But reporters will remember, which will ensure Jindal an even more prominent place in media discussion about the 2012 presidential race—a discussion he very much wants to be a part of.
What’s more interesting, though, is the evolution of the opposition party response into a one- (or, more rarely, two-) person showcase. It wasn’t too long ago that the out-of-power party had no idea what to do with the invaluable chunk of prime time that the television networks handed them every year. Interestingly, it was Bill Clinton who helped make this clear.
Twenty-four years ago, Democrats were reeling, victims just a few months earlier of a 49-state massacre at the hands of Ronald Reagan. If nothing else, the old actor was a brilliant showman, the first president to understand and master the medium of television, a skill he put to use annually in his State of the Union addresses. It was Reagan, for instance, who inaugurated the now-clichéd practice of recognizing “everyday” American heroes in the balcony.
From a technical standpoint, Reagan’s performance in 1985 was one his finest—a speech full of optimism, humor and devoutly patriotic themes delivered at the height of his popularity. There was little competition from cable television back then, so the audience was massive. Democrats, as was the custom, were given the chance to prepare a response. The current practice of anointing one spokesman to speak directly into the camera was not yet in vogue; instead, opposition parties would produce elaborate 20- or 30-minute video presentations shot in multiple locations. The Democrats’ ’85 version marked the beginning of the end of this custom.
Clinton, then the 38-year-old governor of Arkansas, was tapped to narrate the video, and he set a curious tone early on when he stopped in mid-sentence to say, “By the way, Mr. President, happy birthday tonight.” Then, a parade of rank-and-file Democrats were shown trashing Walter Mondale, the party’s ’84 nominee, for having advocated tax increases while offering praise of Reagan. The video amounted to an extended apology to the American public. Reagan aides giddily suggested that they would have paid for the telecast themselves had they known its content beforehand.
Tip O’Neill, the House speaker, was furious, charging the next day that producers had gone easy on Reagan because “we did not want to hurt this kindly old man that America loves on his 74th birthday.”
John White, a former Democratic national chairman, spoke for many in the party when he said: “We may not have run the best campaign in ’84, and we made a lot of mistakes. But as a party, I think we stood for the right principles. I was outraged by the film’s overall groveling and by the way it treated Mondale.”
Even Tony Coehlo, who as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee helped oversee the video’s production, later admitted that it was something he “really hated doing, because it’s not my cup of tea. But the political professionals told us it’s important to say you made a mistake, be humble.”
For Democrats, the only silver lining was that many people never saw their apologia. While CBS and NBC carried it live, ABC decided to broadcast Dynasty instead—which ended up drawing a far better Nielsen rating than the NBC and CBS coverage combined. (ABC aired the Democratic response the next night—a Friday.)
This seemed to trigger an evolution. The following year, the party prepared a far more aggressive program. In 1987, for the first time, Democrats junked the pre-taped concept and deputized two Congressional leaders, House Speaker Jim Wright and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, to speak to the nation live. That model, one or two leaders from Capitol Hill speaking directly to the camera, prevailed for both Democrats and Republicans for the next seven years.
(One blip came in 1993, when Bob Michel, the House Republican leader, pre-taped his response to Bill Clinton’s first address to Congress; he later said that the assignment was “shoved on me” and wondered “if, in retrospect, there isn’t a better way of doing what I did.”)
Generally, these responses were competent, if not dazzling. In February 1989, Democrats sought to capitalize on Lloyd Bentsen’s sudden popularity (his “you’re no Jack Kennedy” put-down of Dan Quayle was just a few months old) and asked him to take Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell’s place alongside Wright in their response to George H. W. Bush’s first Congressional speech. This time, not surprisingly, Bentsen’s performance wasn’t quite so memorable.
But in this era, from the end of Reagan’s presidency into Clinton’s first term, the opposition party’s response essentially morphed into a mini-State of the Union, without the applause and standing ovations. No one sought to revive the elaborate productions of the ’80s.
Nineteen ninety-five marked another turning point, with Republicans, suddenly the majority party in Congress, opting to use their response to showcase a single non-Washington party leader: New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, who delivered her remarks from the state capitol in Trenton.
In theory, Whitman’s selection was designed to send a message of inclusion to women and moderates. “They are not dumb people,” the pro-choice governor said of the G.O.P. leaders who had picked her. “The message is that the party is big and there is room for someone who is pro-choice.” Whitman, like Jindal now, was treated to a flurry of reports connecting her to the next presidential race—as a prospective VP candidate, in her case. (Of course, she was never seriously considered for that spot largely because of her pro-choice views, and Clinton’s eventual rout of Bob Dole in 1996 was in part the result of a wide “gender gap.”)
Other than exceptions like then-presidential candidate Bob Dole’s disastrous response in 1996—”I gave a fireside chat the other night,” he quipped as the ghastly reviews rolled in, “and the fire went out”—this became the new response model.
Republicans chose to showcase J. C. Watts, the lone black Republican in the House, after Clinton’s 1997 address to Congress; Steve Largent, a former NFL receiver and then an Oklahoma congressman, and Washington Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn in 1998; and Senators Susan Collins and Bill Frist in 2000.
Whether the exposure did much for their careers can be argued. Largent and Dunn both failed in bids to move into the House G.O.P. leadership, and Largent also suffered an upset loss in a 2002 race for governor of Oklahoma. Watts eventually became the fourth highest-ranking House Republican and was a constant presence on television in the late ’90s, but Republicans would have pushed him into that role even if he hadn’t delivered their response.
In this decade, Democrats did fall back several times on the old practice of using Congressional leaders, and the results were never good. In 2001, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt delivered a joint response, while Gephardt went solo in 2002; both were interested in running for president in 2004, which presumably played a role in their eagerness for the spotlight. By far, the worst experience came in 2004, when Daschle and Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader, stiffly and awkwardly shared the stage, referring to each other as “Leader Pelosi” and “Leader Daschle.” One television critic likened it to a Saturday Night Live sketch.
But they mostly looked outside of Washington, too. On the eve of the invasion of Baghdad in 2003, Gary Locke, the governor of Washington, delivered the Democratic response. In 2006, the honors went to Tim Kaine, then the newly elected governor Virginia; Jim Webb, who unseated Senator George Allen in November 2006, was the party’s choice the next year. Last year, for George W. Bush’s final address, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius got the call.
While the exposure certainly didn’t hurt Kaine, Webb and Sebelius—all of whom were prominently mentioned as potential running mates for Obama last summer—it apparently had the opposite effect on Locke, who became the nation’s first Asian-American governor when he was elected in 1996.
Popular at home (although viewed with some irritation by the left for his conservative economic policies), Locke was seen as a safe bet for reelection in 2004, and even a prospect for his party’s national ticket in 2004. But not long after his nationally televised response, he announced that he wouldn’t run again.
Ken Jacobsen, a state senator allied with Locke, told a Seattle newspaper that the reaction to the speech had unnerved Locke, with hundreds of threatening and hateful emails flooding his inbox.
“Some were really racist,” Jacobsen said, “saying things like, ‘Why don’t you and your family get on a boat and go back to China?’ I think Gary, having had his kids later in life and maybe feeling them to be especially precious, made him worry about what they might face.” Since leaving office four years ago, Locke has kept away from politics.