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Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

STATE OF THE UNION REBUTTAL....Bruce Reed discusses at greater length than I have why the rebuttal to the State of the Union address is a preordained disaster:

Why is the response doomed to fall short, no matter who gives it? Consider the inherent disadvantages. First, it's a ten-minute rebuttal to an hour-long speech. By the time the opposition leader speaks, the television audience is desperate to go to sleep or change the channel to Sports Center.

Second, the contrast in settings is a killer. The State of the Union highlights all the president's majesty, as he speaks to a packed chamber of members who throng to shake his hand and applaud even his lamest lines. The rest of the year, the Founders' checks and balances are theoretically in effect but on this night, the president looks down on Congress and the Supreme Court, sitting powerless in the well below. By contrast, the poor sap giving the official response is like a movie without a sound track no buzz, no applause, no majesty.

I agree completely, which is why I also agree that the blogosphere should give Tim Kaine a break. Being picked to give the rebuttal is more a hazing ritual than an honor.

Anyway, I'll repeat my suggestion to the Democrats from a couple of years ago: either insist that the rebuttal speaker be allowed to speak in front of an audience or else just pack it in. The current format is so bad that I'm convinced it does the opposition party more harm than good.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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Who in the blogosphere is going after Tim Kaine? I have seen nothing on Kos, on Atrios, on MyDD nothing on the front page. Is it op-eds? Establishment types?

As far as I know this anti-Tim Kaine thing was pulled out of your ass.

Posted by: MNPundit on January 31, 2006 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

I think the fundamental problem is looking at the "response" (the traditional -- though still, IMO, not ideal -- way of labelling it) as a rebuttal of the SOTU, rather than as, ideally, a brief, direct elocution of an independent, alternate vision.

Posted by: cmdicely on January 31, 2006 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

One of the Democratic Party's SOTU responses this year is certainly interesting if not for content then for the person who'll be delivering it.

Los Angeles mayor and major new Democratic star Antonio Villaraigosa will be giving the Spanish-language version.

Perhaps he'll lead the nation in the Chicano Power handclap.

Posted by: TLB on January 31, 2006 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe pack it in or maybe even better treat it as an opportunity to present verifiable facts to counter the administrations spin over the past year then declare "That is the true state of our union. Misdirection, unchecked power and corruption."
Something like that. An

Posted by: carsick on January 31, 2006 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but I find "majesty" an unfortunate word to use for an elected official in a republic.

Posted by: Matt Austern on January 31, 2006 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

A lot of folks in the non-horse-race focused, ideology over partisanship wing of the blogosphere have been critical of the choice. Ezra jumps to mind but only because everyone was talking about what a good looking guy he was after Katrina vanden heuval insulted his looks after he criticized the Kaine choice.

But anyway, I agree they should scrap the response and have said so. They should dispense with the SOTU as well though. It no longer serves a real purpose.

Posted by: Jedmunds on January 31, 2006 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

The current format is so bad that I'm convinced it does the opposition party more harm than good.

Makes'em look like they're part of a rebel broadcasting movement, commandeering television stations, hoping the real government doesn't find their secret location.

Posted by: luci on January 31, 2006 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

A rebuttal by Howard Dean before a Move On crowd would work nicely.

Posted by: DavidLA on January 31, 2006 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

This is all true, but... in the past the people chosen have simply done a terrible job. They were simply not good speakers and no attention was paid to camera angles or staging. Never underestimate the potential power of the lone voice speaking a moral truth in a compelling fashion. Without advancing either of them as an appropriate choice (or in one case, even choose-able), I don't think Jesse Jackson or the late Bill Graham could be made to look small simply by the lack of a fawning crowd, particularly with the stark issues that face us today, literally our democratic form of government, the survival of this planet in the form we know it, and the relation of government to its citizens.

Posted by: miller on January 31, 2006 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

maybe i'm just a dork, but the only rebuttal i recall being sort of interesting was a Clinton-era rebuttal done by Trent Lott which had this sort of PowerPoint-like component that i thought was interesting purely from a presentaion point of view. maybe democrats could go the full Perot and show little charts and graphs. most amusing, for me, would be to go Jon Stewart style, showing video clips of Bush making contradictory or demonstrably untrue statements and pointing out the implications.

i guess i'm mostly joking, but maybe the rebuttal could be spiced up with some a/v bells and whistles?

Posted by: bob on January 31, 2006 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

By contrast, the poor sap giving the official response is like a movie without a sound track no buzz, no applause, no majesty.

Maybe a laugh track would be appropriate?

Posted by: E. Nonee Moose on January 31, 2006 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

They should dispense with the SOTU as well though. It no longer serves a real purpose.

Really, no one gives a rat's ass about the SOTU speech either, so who cares about the rebuttal. No one cares and it won't make a difference either way--never did, never will. Remember what a pivotal moment Christie Whitman's rebuttal before the NJ assembly was? No? Me neither. Just another speech that was forgotten the moment regular programming resumed.
Whatever lefty bloggers are seriously arguing over this need to get a life.

Posted by: Ringo on January 31, 2006 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

But anyway, I agree they should scrap the response and have said so. They should dispense with the SOTU as well though. It no longer serves a real purpose.

Who watches the rebuttal, anyway, other than us bloggers/blog readers? As far as that goes, who watches the SOTU? I don't plan to -- I'm going to read about the Prez's lies in tomorrow's blogs.

Posted by: pol on January 31, 2006 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

Like Carsick's idea. A fact-checking of the State of the Union speech. Not too partisan, just point out the misleading statements of the Prez. (No need to call'em lies, they are definitely attempts to mislead).

Then, say, "why must the Republicans misrepresent their policies so often? (because many of their policies would be popularly rejected if known)...give the Democratic party a chance. We're not afraid of the truth."

Then we (the Dems) would actually have to start telling the truth, though (instead of cowardly parroting the administration's line on "terrar" and the Iraq war.

Posted by: luci on January 31, 2006 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK


Who from the blogosphere is complaining? I am only aware of Arianna Huffington.

Can you provide some other examples?

Posted by: justmy2 on January 31, 2006 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Oh...and Ezra Klein...

I guess I am looking for the uproar...I haven't seen it on the sites frequent, but then again, I don't go through the entire blogosphere...

Posted by: justmy2 on January 31, 2006 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote: "either insist that the rebuttal speaker be allowed to speak in front of an audience or else just pack it in." And then carsick suggested: "treat it as an opportunity to present verifiable facts to counter the administrations spin over the past year . . . ."

Here's one way to accomplish both: the Ds should take this opportunity to give Gore's MLK Jr. Day speech the TV audience it deserved. Maybe some enterprising network techie could swap a feed somewhere ... :-)

Posted by: ajsnow on January 31, 2006 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

No matter what the state of the union reveals, the response should be:
"We just ask you to think about the following when you consider President Bush's proposals:

  • President Bush's administration brough us the Medicare Part D fiasco.

  • President Bush's adminstration believes spying on Americans without due process is good.

  • President Bush's administration promised to bring in Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."

  • President Bush's administration couldn't handle Katrina.

  • President Bush's administration (add other foobars here).

So when you are thinking about President Bush's proposals in the next few months -- even if you think his ideas are good -- just ask yourself if you can trust this administration to be competent.

Thank you for your time."

1 minute tops.

Posted by: PasadenaKevin on January 31, 2006 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

Why have the speech,You have talking heads telling us what the President said for a week.The SOTU speech has been written so it, like the bible can be interpetted 16 diffrent ways to sunday.

Posted by: pssst on January 31, 2006 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

Junk the talking head format. Do something different. In this case, show clips. Show clips from Bush's past state of the union addresses, with brief commentary. Show clips of Bush contradicting himself. Show my favorite clip, where he says he's going to force the security council to a vote regardless of "whip count" and then withdraws it, because, well, he not only doesn't have the votes, it's like 4-12 against.

Posted by: JayAckroyd on January 31, 2006 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

I think the Democrats should use their rare moment of prime-time coverage to announce their intention to impeach George W. Bush and shut down Congress until Articles of Impeachment are drawn and filed against Bush and the American people are allowed to see all of the evidence. Exhibit A - The Downing Street memo.

Make it the final battle for the Republic.....

Posted by: Stephen Kriz on January 31, 2006 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

It's fashionable for sophisticated types to say that the State of the Union (and any rebuttal) is pointless.


For average Americans, the SOTU is a quite important. Millions tune in, and they seem to appreciate it even when the pundits say it sucks (i.e., Clinton's long, item-filled SOTU speeches, which were popular everywhere but inside the Beltway).

Also important would be any rebuttal.

The reason is: it is one of the few times that Americans get to see the President (or the leader of the opposition) speaking to them for any length of time without TV journalists always horning in or cutting away, or analyzing it to death.

As Garrison Keiller said once, if Abraham Lincoln were to give the Gettysburg Address today, nobody would realize it for the gem that it is -- because it would not be reported, except in small print on page A37 of the New York Times. We would see sound bites on TV, and much more time devoted to horse-race analysis than given to actually letting the man speak. The headline would not be: "Lincoln eloquently frames war as test of democracy". It would be more like: "Lincoln seeks to placate nervous Republicans with eye to '64 elections".

Posted by: dan on January 31, 2006 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

Oh...and Ezra Klein...
I guess I am looking for the uproar...

That Ezra Klein feller sure has a purty mouth, but Katrina is right: he's no Brad Pitt.

Posted by: geoff on January 31, 2006 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Can't we just get John Stewart to deliver the rebuttal?

Or just keep it down to two minutes or less. Like "Can he really be serious? Are we going to fall for this baloney? Fool me once shame on me, fool me twice, duh, won't get fooled again..."

Posted by: Jimbo2K6 on January 31, 2006 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely and others make a good point: Don't rebut the SOTU. Instead make the best 10 minute media presentation you can. Don't try and out-majesty and out BS the SOTU (because you can't).

Ju Jitsu it. Follow Perot's lead: make a nice simple factual presentation on a few key issues.

Because Ross Perot's little speeches are one of the most neglected examples in US politics. Here was a nutty, weird little guy just pointing at a few simple graphes. And almost everyone can remember these speeches.

People are completely turned-off on traditional stand there and yap political speeches. No businessman in his right mind would try to sell you something by just standing there and yapping.

The Democrats shouldn't try to do it tonight. Instead they could walk through 3 sets of charts:

1) Deficit - exploding into the future if tax cuts extended. Followed by a pie chart showing % of historical deficits under Republicans and Democrats (Reagan and Bush would alone be over 50%.)

2) Iraq War - Show lists of reasons given at start, then reality now. Follow with chart showing annual spending to-date, and projected costs. Make sure people know how expensive this is.

3) Medical care costs. Show projected soaring cost of medicare - and deficit. Then show projected number who were supposed to sign up for the program and the number who actually have.

Bottom line: Democrats are more responsible.

The biggest points:

Deficit - GOP reckless,
Medicine is collapsing - GOP on the take, and Iraq is a disaster - we must change course.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on January 31, 2006 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

BTW - one historical note: the Gettysburg address was almost completely unremarked upon at the time. The reporting the next day talked all about the loquacious speeches around it.

It was only historians that looked at it and slowly built its reputation.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on January 31, 2006 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

Let's hold our fire re Kaine. I heard him today and he was more critical of Bush and his policies than I have heard any of the Dem dinosaurs be. He especially zeroed in on the prescription drug fiasco. He actually used the F word..... fiasco. When have you seen any Democrat with the guts to do that? Would Kerry, Feingold, Reid, Hillary, Biden, and the rest of the gang that can't see opportunity when it is beating them over the head ever venture on such scary ground and maybe make W mad at them? I don't think so.
My hopes are high. Maybe that's just a sign that I am another cock-eyed Dem., always the optimist .......me and Mr. Micawber. Maybe just another triumph of hope over experience. Pathetically enough, my fingers are crossed.

Posted by: Mary Alice on January 31, 2006 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

Gore Vidal gives his rebuttal to Bush's SOTU speech on Democracy Now!; it is also posted on The Raw Story.

Posted by: Erroll on January 31, 2006 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

"The State of the Union highlights all the president's majesty, as he speaks to a packed chamber of members who throng to shake his hand and applaud even his lamest lines."

Not to mention those whose cheeks long to get a presidential kiss.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on January 31, 2006 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

Is there an actual rule against the rebuttal speaker having an audience? Can't the Dems just rent a hall, fill it with it with Democrats, a whale away?

Posted by: SqueakyRat on January 31, 2006 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK
Is there an actual rule against the rebuttal speaker having an audience? Can't the Dems just rent a hall, fill it with it with Democrats, a whale away?


Posted by: cmdicely on January 31, 2006 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

It'd be preferable if the two parties went back to the pre-Wilson model of simply sending a written document over to Capitol Hill. Of course, that would require some sense of proportion by our elected offcials, so it will
never happen.

Thanks to the poster who noted how the Gettysburg Address was largely overlooked in it's immediate aftermath.

Posted by: Will Allen on January 31, 2006 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

It really is a lopsided mismatch. My suggestion is to skip it. Let the Republicans float their fast-deflating, fart-sounding balloon.

If the Democrats need to to anything, it should be more of a "follies" kind of varsity show that satirizes current politics and the President and other Republican party leaders.

Instead of a response to the speech, it's a refreshing time out from the whole political rat race. A presentation of a different form altogether, and it would be aimed at an audience that was saturated with serious blather already.

Calling Al Franken!

Posted by: liberal elite on January 31, 2006 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

This president has demonstrated incompetence at an epic level, Katrina and the Iraq War plan being the most salient examples. There are many more.

This president has been wrong so many times, as far as various claims he's made, and assumptions he's gone under, it would take hours to list them all. Salient examples would be the assumption that Iraqis would greet us with flowers, instead of insurgency, that terrorists wouldn't attack us in ways described by the FAA and foreign intelligence services (among others) long before 9-11, that Katrina would not devastate New Orleans and overwhelm local rescue and emergency services, causing far more lives to be lost, or that Fatah would easily win the elections in Palestine.

The cronyism, corruption, and ethical as well as criminal scandals rampant in this administration, along with the denial of science and gross selling of legislation to the highest bidder and special interests, is truly unsettling, and like a plague on our democracy, as well a pox on our image around the world.

If this is the Republican Party, if this is the so-called Grand Ole Party in action, then it's time we bring in the new, and return American governance and leadership to at least a semblance of respect and effectiveness, rather than mockery and incompetence, and to an ethic of responsiveness to citizens, not the highest bidder and special interests.

Posted by: Jimm on January 31, 2006 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

gwb ahead of tonight's snarkapalooza

"...our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat one another. So we strive to be a compassionate, decent, hopeful society."

unless you openly disagree with us....

Posted by: thisspaceavailable on January 31, 2006 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

I came up with that rebuttal in about 3 minutes as I was typing, so you figure the Democrats could come up with something to the point and cutting with all the manhours they put into it.

What Bush says is irrelevant too, especially if you point out how frequently and common it is for him to be wrong, both about this claims, his assumptions, and his projections.

I'd dismiss his whole speech tonight as garbage along the same lines.

Posted by: Jimm on January 31, 2006 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

Hoping this hasn't been covered already somewhere... Does anyone know if the "critiques" of these addresses are still being done? I know that in 2002 there was a point-by-point rebuttal and explanation online the next day, and I'd love to see one this time.

Posted by: Mike B. on January 31, 2006 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has an excellent rebuttal -- excerpt:

"Don't be fooled by the President's rosy rhetoric, as is most often the case with this Administration, the President's rhetoric does not match reality. The truth is our union is in a state of great peril. This Administration is conducting a war with no end in Iraq, illegally spying on Americans at home, overseeing an economy that is increasingly leaving more and more Americans behind and abandoning the Gulf Coast in their hour of great need."

Also, the Union of Concerned Scientists has some crucial comments on Bush's proposals for expanding nuclear power -- excerpt:

" In his State of the Union speech tonight, President Bush is expected to call for more nuclear power. While he is unlikely to delve into details, his plan includes the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from U.S. power reactors- a controversial plan that will overturn 30 years of U.S. practice and make it easier for terrorists to acquire plutonium to make nuclear weapons [...] If the president is seriously interested in clean, home grown electricity he should support -- instead of opposing -- the Senate-passed bill to increase energy production from wind, solar, bioenergy, and geothermal sources."

Posted by: SecularAnimist on January 31, 2006 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK


"Our greatness is measured by how we are able to still thrive no matter how many times I fail, am wrong, am incompetent, get reelected because I'm a rich pretty boy bragging about our "opportunity society", where the best and brightest can rise to the top, and maybe meet me up here, myself the hope of those who are not the best and brightest, but can buy our way to the top with our family money and ruthless political advisers. That's the greatness of America...that you can succeed both ways, and even a guy who has never succeeded at anything in his life, and been constantly bailed out by his family, friends of his family, and/or people sucking at his teat who want to be in with his family, can hold the highest office in the land, and no matter how incompetently held this office, not bring down the whole nation, we being strong enough to survive the tens of thousands of dead Americans, and record-breaking debt and deficits."

Posted by: Jimm on January 31, 2006 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

If the Dems had any balls they wouldn't skip the rebuttal -- they'd skip the SOTU. Boycott. Go somewhere else. They don't get to participate in government under this administration, so why not dramatize that fact by letting the news cameras and the country see a sea of empty seats? Then immediately after Bush shuts up, and before Chris Matthews' orgasm ends, have Al Gore or someone start delivering a Democratic address on the state of the union.

Posted by: Ryan on January 31, 2006 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK

I think what is called for is an effective backdrop; do the rebuttal live, walking through the flood-damaged streets of New Orleans at night.

Posted by: Dano347 on January 31, 2006 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

"the rebuttal to the State of the Union address is a preordained disaster"

Gee, how hard is it to say that this President has exercised no degree of comeptency. He has solved no problems since coming into office and has created many more.

Quite simply, in politics and campaigning and in casting dispersion and blame on others for that which he fails to do or is unable to do, he is superlative, even if he has to resort to lies.

His biggest wopper was trying to tie Democrats to Abramoff's corruption. Abramhoff is a sworn, die in the wool, card carrying republican.

But blaming others for his inability to solve problems or develop coherent efficacious policies won't solve anything and it won't get anything done.

Harry Truman scored great points siting congress as "do-little". But worse than doing little is undoing much.

This Administration, and the neocon movement upon which it is a part has done nothing but attempt to undermine and undo every institution it never created: be it International, such as all of our strategic alliances, including NATO, be it the UN or be it the Geneva accords on human treatment of war prisoners; Be it Nation - social security, or now even the constitution itself.

Keep in mind, every institution that they seek to destroy was originally created to solve a problem. Their ideas don't consist of solving problems, but of eliminating the institutions others created to solve problems that once plagued our society.

In short everything this administration sets it hand to turns to dust or corruption. It is the slip-shodiest of presidencies.

The latest case the prescription drug benefit debacle. The president first lied to congress about its cost. Then he help create a program that gave billions to private industry, though it added no value. In fact it subtracts value. And now some of our most vulnerable citizens are left more vulnerable then before the President proposed this policy.

But the prescription drug benefit is part of a consistent pattern of slip-shod incompentency. The response to Katrina that he promised to do something about lies in tatters, after costing America's treasury billions of dollars.

Then there's the tens of billions of your dollars simply lost in Iraq. Thats not to mention the lack of weapons of mass distruction, the reason upon which he went to war.

That war too is a mess and reports now estimate that the war will cost us trillions. Trillions for a coutnry with a GNP of $50 billion.

Now our military is nearly to the point of being broken, by some pentagon estimates and the real danger is appearing in Iran, and I won't mention N. Korea.

The president, in short, is woefully incompetant when it comes to administering government policy. No wonder republican's want small government - they are too corrupt, too incompetent to manage it.

Yes the president is good at polictics and the art of grabbing more and more power. His latest gambit it to destroy the constitution by grabbbing more of your political rights at your expense.

In short he is very competent at becoming president, but he is very incompetent at managing the government or developing and administering efficacious policy that is consistant at meeting the peoples needs and interest.

After five long years in office the problems have only accumulated, the internation situation has only grown in complexity and problems, but thanks to his odious diplomacy we now have even less allies to help meet these growing problems then we did before. That means the cost is growing, and more and more we have to absorb the cost entirely ourselves because we don't have allies to offset this, and our ability to pay for these ventures shrinks as we grow ever greater in debt.

It is not off to mark to state that this presidency has been a misserable failure.

Gee, how hard is it to say that in ten minutes.

Posted by: Bubbles on January 31, 2006 at 5:49 PM | PERMALINK

Democrats should stand and turn their backs.

Why not shun the man.

He is despicable.

But we won't see any such LEADERSHIP from Dems... because they are members of the same incestuous nest - Dems are just waiting for their turn at the water hole.

I don't see anything for disaffected gopers to flee to.

People are holding out for a hero.... I don't think they even care about the color of his/her stripes ... just give us some good ole fashioned outrage at BOTH parties.

Somebody who will point out the insanity of left and right.

Somebody who isn't OWNED by the political blow jobs he's given all the way up the ladder.

Posted by: Ashley on January 31, 2006 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

I never realized there was a rebuttal till last year. I am 29, I have been trying to keep track of politics for the last 7 years. I totally missed it till last year. I doubt most people even know there is such a thing.

Posted by: Joseph on January 31, 2006 at 7:41 PM | PERMALINK

Better yet why not get George Clooney to deliver it!

Posted by: Dawne Touchings on January 31, 2006 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK

Next year Think Progress and John Stewart should team up for the rebuttal.

Posted by: carsick on January 31, 2006 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK

The above and...you know...let the democratic party contribute some too.

Posted by: carsick on January 31, 2006 at 10:47 PM | PERMALINK

Tim Kaine did a fine job. I was surprised.

Posted by: contentious on January 31, 2006 at 10:54 PM | PERMALINK

"either insist that the rebuttal speaker be allowed to speak in front of an audience or else just pack it in."

I like your idea, but why can't the Democrats just arrange it themselves. Are the networks really dictating the stage and format? The rebuttal could be set up in a conference hall across town, with members of the public invited to take part in the audience. I guarantee with a little preparation you could fill a large hall. It would be a nice change from the invitation only SOTU address and probably give.

As for packing it in, the Democrats need to take every opportunity they can to be heard and this is one time that they get guaranteed air time. They should've identified their best speaker and spent the last 2 weeks drumming up interest in his speech. Sounds like a good plan for next year.

Posted by: Mike on January 31, 2006 at 11:31 PM | PERMALINK

National Nitwit has the inside scoop of a bold new plan by the President that will be a great leap foward.

Posted by: Subcomandante Bob on January 31, 2006 at 11:48 PM | PERMALINK



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