Some Republicans departing from rebuttal script

New York TimesNews ServiceJanuary 27, 2014 

WASHINGTON -- The protocol is staid and formulaic. The president addresses Congress for the State of the Union, then the opposition party's designee follows with a rebuttal.

The choreography is tight, predictable and usually forgettable.

Not this year. The once careful attempt at stagecraft, fashioned under the close watch of party chiefs to be as uniform and on message as possible, has given way to political free agency.

The shift speaks volumes about politics today: the value placed on the individual brand over the larger organization, and the way social media and technology have torn down barriers to fame and influence.

For example, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., plans to spend part of Tuesday in a television studio off Capitol Hill recording his own unsanctioned rebuttal to President Barack Obama's address that night. His staff plans to blast the video to news outlets around the world, and to the hundreds of thousands of people the senator reaches online through Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will have top billing for the newest -- and to some Republicans the most unwelcome -- post-State of the Union event, the official Tea Party response.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, not

content to wait until Tuesday, got rolling last week when he released a statement in which he demanded that Obama answer accusations on a variety of issues, including National Security Agency surveillance and the Affordable Care Act. He then followed up with a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asking for a special prosecutor to look into accusations of political persecution by the Internal Revenue Service.

Competing with them for the soapbox will be Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, who is to deliver the party's official response.

"There is no clear leadership in the Republican Party right now, no clear direction or message, and no way to enforce discipline," said Mark McKinnon, a veteran Republican strategist who has become an outspoken critic of his party. "And because there's a vacuum, and no shortage of cameras, there are plenty of actors happy to audition."

The Republican leadership in Congress is trying not to cede control to its freelance responders. In an effort led by McMorris Rodgers, members shuffling out of the House chamber after Obama's address will be steered toward one of several rapid-response booths, which will be festooned with a Republican slogan and stocked with iPads and other devices to allow them to record six-second videos through Vine.

Republican officials said members were being encouraged to focus on pushing back on Democratic claims that the Republican-controlled House has offered little of an agenda of its own other than to oppose the president.

But amid all the jockeying for who can have the best, loudest and most effective retort Tuesday, many Republicans and Democrats who have been through this before are asking, Why bother? The response is a risky endeavor, often marred by inelegance and blunder.

"There's never been a good one," said John Feehery, who was an aide to J. Dennis Hastert, a Republican and a former House speaker. "There's this element of getting too close to the sun. They think they're hot stuff, and their hot stuff gets melted in the glare of the lights. It's very risky."

You can get embarrassingly thirsty, as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida did last year when he ducked down about 11 minutes into his remarks to take a sip from a bottle of water. You can look at the wrong camera, as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota did in 2011 when she delivered the first Tea Party response. Or you can have an awkward stroll to the camera, as Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana did in 2009 when he gave the Republican Party's reply to a major economic policy address that Obama delivered shortly after he was inaugurated.

There are many reasons it so often goes awry. The speaker always looks diminished next to the president, whose appearance inside the vast House chamber seems so majestic as members of Congress shower him with standing ovation after standing ovation. The response is usually delivered from an unfamiliar location somewhere in the Capitol, underscoring a sense of isolation.

"You're always cognizant of what an imbalance in setting it is," said Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader in the Senate, who gave his party's response to some of President George W. Bush's speeches. "Anytime you can have an audience that stands and applauds at virtually every sentence, it's an enormous disadvantage to have to speak to a camera by yourself afterwards."

Response speeches, whether to the State of the Union or any other major presidential address, are almost always canned, with most of the text written before the opposing party has had a chance to read or hear the president's remarks.

For those who agree to give the speech after the State of the Union address, it can be a career kiss of death, the political world's equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover curse. Daschle spoke for the Democrats in 2004, after Bush, and lost his seat nine months later. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas delivered the Republican response in 1996 only to lose that year's presidential race to Bill Clinton.

Others have met a more ignominious fate. Bob McDonnell, who was indicted last week on federal corruption charges, delivered the Republican message in 2010 as governor of Virginia.

The practice of answering a president's State of the Union as the opposition party does today on broadcast television began in 1982, when Democrats produced a documentary-style program with ordinary citizens and members of Congress sounding off on the Reagan presidency.

But back then there was no Twitter, no Vine and no Tea Party.

"The message development for the party and on Capitol Hill has been flipped," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and a former aide to Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio. "It used to be that congressional leadership could develop the broad outline of the party's message, and everyone else could echo it. We're no longer in a place where members are echoing leadership. They're competing with leadership."

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