Pull the Plug on This Program

No matter what happens in a State of the Union address, the opposition's official response is going to feel pathetic.


The State of the Union address is traditionally followed by a response from the opposition. Wednesday night's Republican reply was anything but traditional, though: It was filmed before a live audience, which clapped and laughed at the expected intervals with all the robotic reliability of the crowd at a taping of Two and a Half Men. As Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell delivered his party's statement, he was flanked by figures representing a calculatedly diverse assortment of races and sexes; they nodded and made thoughtful faces every time McDonnell made a point, even one as banal as "We were encouraged to hear President Obama speak this evening about the need to create jobs." It felt like a weird, ersatz State of the Union, the sort of thing a couple of consultants might throw together with just enough of a budget to hire some extras and buy an applause sign.

Still, you can't blame the GOP for trying something new. If there's one constant in the recent history of the State of the Union address, it's this: No matter how lethargic, long-winded, dishonest, or dimwitted the president's speech may be, the reply will feel like a pathetic rejoinder put together in someone's rec room. A politician—possibly a party leader but often a "rising star," i.e., someone most viewers won't have heard of—stares at a camera in an apparently empty office, reciting a set of talking points. In the State of the Union speech itself, an immensely powerful man sets an agenda. In the response, no matter what the speaker says, the takeaway message for anyone still bothering to watch is that he isn't setting the agenda. In Great Britain, the opposition gets to confront the prime minister on television every week. In the United States, the opposition gets to borrow the camera after the president has left the room.

Every now and then, someone tries a different approach. A few times in the '80s, for example, the Dems decided to fill their slot with what amounted to infomercials for the Democratic Party. These tone-deaf programs reached their nadir in 1985, with a show hosted by a young Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Just two months before, Ronald Reagan had defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide. The stars of the State of the Union response were a series of purportedly typical Democratic voters, each of whom seemed to have been selected to appeal to those young, upwardly mobile Americans who wished the party had nominated Gary Hart instead. Indeed, the evening's only reference to Mondale came when one of the interviewees attacked the candidate's pledge to raise taxes. A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee explained the strategy to the press: "We needed to tell the American people we were wrong."

Did it work? That spokesman's name is Terry Michael; these days he considers himself a libertarian and occasionally contributes to Reason. "I think it was really dumb," he tells me. "In the aftermath of the slaughtering we took in November '84, there was this zeitgeist within the party 'leadership' that we were being out-communicated by the Great Communicator and his communication wizards." Aside from backing down from Mondale's suicidal tax pledge, it "never occurred to our brilliant thinkers that it was the message, not the medium, that did us in."

That said, the medium wasn't helping either. Even fewer people than usual watched the Democratic response that year: While CBS and NBC showed the program, ABC preempted it for Dynasty. By the time ABC got around to transmitting it a night later, the other networks were screening counterprogramming of their own.

Given all the limits of the format, and given that hardly anyone bothers to watch it anyway, is there any good reason to keep the opposition response at all? It's a relatively recent invention—the first one was aired in 1966—yet it already feels stuck in time. No matter how ridiculous the cable talk shows can get, their guests' reaction to the president's speech will be livelier and more effective than the officially allotted reply. So why not just bag it?

We probably should do just that. But in the meantime, let me fantasize about the sort of response I'd like to see, one that would not just reply to the points in a president's speech but would undermine the gravitas that gives the event its power and by extension makes the responses seem so puny. It would take its cue from the '90s, when TV experimented constantly with ways to puncture its own pretentions—when programs like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Pop-Up Video were on the rise, allowing broadcasters to fill their shows with rejoinders to the events onscreen. Instead of delivering your response right after the president's address, wait a day and then air the speech (or some choice highlights from it) again. But this time cover the screen with pop-ups every time you want to correct the president's math, to point out a contradiction, or to suggest an alternate approach to a problem. For extra fun, you could pick out one of the speaker's more aggravating rhetorical ticks ("there are those" would work for the present president, or maybe "let me be clear") and have a counter in the corner that goes up every time he says it.

Chances are tiny that either party would do that, and chances are even smaller that they'd do it well. Fortunately, we don't have to rely on them to get it done. The Internet is already filled with people willing to mash-up, remix, and annotate everything the political class does on camera. And if those annotators are independents trying to set some facts straight or wiseacres trying to score some laughs instead of partisans crafting a sales pitch for their party—well, then so much the better.

Jesse Walker is Reason's managing editor.