McDonnell’s Response to Obama

Posted: Jan 27, 2010 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Republican leaders in Congress have selected newly seated Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to deliver the GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address this evening. For a host of practical and political reasons, as well as real-world experience and substance, McDonnell seems an excellent choice.

Given that, as one who has worked on a few presidential campaigns and who has drafted my share of speeches, I have long had a complaint about the response to the State of the Union address. That being -- at least on the GOP side -- it's almost always an opportunity lost.

This year, more than most, I believe the American people are going to afford the Republican response much more attention. The very elections of McDonnell, New Jersey Gov. Christie, and now Scott Brown in Massachusetts, clearly demonstrate that not only are the American people on edge and looking for accountability, but they are much more engaged than in past cycles. As such, it's critical that the GOP -- through the presence and character of McDonnell -- make an impression that not only resonates, but lasts.

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Unfortunately, part of what goes into a lasting impression is the stage-craft of the event. President Obama is going to be afforded good lighting, a well-written speech, and an obedient audience in the majority Democratic members who are going to continually jump up and applaud -- both sincerely and on command -- his every utterance. To not have such similar stage-crafting is a huge mistake. Two examples jump quickly to mind on the Republican side. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal last year and Bob Dole in 1996 -- both with essentially the same set of problems.

Back in 1996 when my old boss Bob Dole delivered the response to President Clinton's State of the Union address, he did so alone from his Senate office in the Capitol. Many people thought the lighting was not only too dark, but somewhat foreboding. For me, worse than what in fact was very bad lighting, was that he gave the address alone, emoting only to the cold and uncaring lens of a network camera. Because of that flawed tactic, and before Dole spoke his first word, Clinton had already won the night.

I have long argued that the Republican response to the President's State of the Union address must be delivered in front of a professionally lit hall packed with people who strongly support not only the speaker, but his or her message of the moment. From such a setting will come a natural energy to rival the theatrics of the State of the Union, and an atmosphere that will make the response more lasting. Of course, along with the theatrics and atmosphere, the response must be well-delivered and believable. To that point, it is critical that McDonnell stay true to himself and not let "handlers" foisted upon him by the GOP congressional leadership craft his message or his beliefs. For the American people to buy into his themes and warnings, his passion must be true and his hopes and fears genuine.

In the increasingly dangerous and uncertain post-9/11 world we inhabit, the American people are desperate for accountability and adult leadership. They understand, much more than our elected officials, that ultimately, the single largest threat to their overall security is the hyper-partisanship that has crippled Washington.

As Republican and Democratic officials continually put self and party before nation, the voters are deserting the institutions in droves. McDonnell has been handed a unique opportunity to address his fellow citizens. We will see if his first steps into the national spotlight are those of a budding statesman, or just the next pandering politician.