So what did you think of the speech? No, not the State of the Union; other people are all over that. No, not the iPad launch; we’ve already covered that. I’m talking about the Republican response to the State of the Union, which new Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell delivered, in a twist, in front of a crowd of supporters in the Virginia House of Delegates.
On the one hand, it solved the usual problem, in which the poor sap who draws the short straw for the opposition party has to follow a speech given to standing ovations in the grandeur of the Capitol with an address given to awkward silence into a camera.
On the other hand, it seemed a little weird, like a scene from some postapocalyptic movie in which America has been divided into warring territories, each with its own President and a State of its own Union.
Oh, wait: we do live in that postapocalyptic movie, don’t we?
The image of another executive giving a response in an alterna-Capitol packed with his own cheering section (no mass of grimly seated representatives from the other party here) seemed to capture visually the parallel political realities we inhabit today. After all, that’s how we experience politics: in victory or defeat, we retreat to our insular, private forums, in the company of our own amen choruses.
As a speech, I thought McDonnell’s was solidly delivered: certainly an improvement on the disastrous response given to Obama’s address last year by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (which proved the stakes in such a speech for a young governor). The optics were calculated, maybe a little too much so.
In one of the weirdest moments of last night’s coverage, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews enthused that Obama’s speech made him “[forget Obama] was black tonight for an hour.” The GOP, on the other hand, did not forget that McDonnell is quite white indeed, and backed him with a group of supporters that included several African American and Asian supporters—a marked contrast to anyone who remembers the ocean of Caucasitude at the 2008 Republican convention.
Impact-wise, well, it’s still unfair to compare any rebuttal speech to the State of the Union that precedes it. But odd as the presentation may have seemed in some ways, giving the speech before a live audience was an improvement over the standard thirty-yard-stare, pained-grin approach. It made McDonnell’s address sound more alive, and an address like this—sounding principles and criticisms—plays better with the dynamic of a crowd responding to it.
There was only thing missing. Next year, we should be able to vote on the two speeches, with a small phone- and text-messaging fee donated to federal debt relief. If the country stays as polarized as it is, we’ll balance the budget in no time.