While President Obama famous labored over all the drafts of his one State of the Union speech (and documented those labors), the opposition party apparently worked overtime to make sure that their response was thoroughly recorded, with no fewer than four broadcast or streamed statements given by House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) in the official Republican response, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in the official Spanish-language Republican response, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Tea Party Express response, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaking for himself.
Past official responses have often been delivered by strong state officials, with many getting their first glances of Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Mitch Daniels of Indiana in such forums. As Daniel Larison remarked yesterday, such a Congress-heavy slate of respondents risked “cement[ing] the current GOP’s identity as a mainly Congressional party” when Congress’s approval ratings are, as is now customary, at all-time lows. What is interesting about this all-Congressional slate of respondents is how neatly it cuts across the traditional divide of Beltway-establishment outside-the-Beltway-free thinking. Rand Paul and Mike Lee both were swept into the tradition-soaked Senate as Tea Party candidates in 2010, and Rodgers herself presented a somewhat new and more promising messaging than even the venerable outsider governors have been able to marshal in recent years. As I do not know a lick of Spanish, I regret that I have to refrain from comment on Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s message.
Lee and Rodgers, when taken together, make for something of an interesting pairing. Most of the policy talk, or what passed for policy talk, in Rodgers’ address was regular Republican boilerplate. The framing, however, served a dual purpose of addressing the “cares about you gap” that hurt Romney so severely in the last election and in combatting the mostly unfounded “war on women” meme that many Democrats have been propagating. While framing American exceptionalism in its most vague generalities of economic growth and positive feelings, Rodgers rang a money line, that “That is what we stand for—for an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional.” Her compassionate pitch was not big government in sheep’s clothing, though, but a direct connection to American political conservatism’s most potent emotional appeal: the pro-life fights and defenses of the most vulnerable. By discussing her own middle child, diagnosed with Downs syndrome, as a manifestation of God’s gift rather than a tragedy her family would overcome, Rodgers draped drab Republican economics in compassionate clothing. Moreover, her discussion of her own marriage after coming to Congress, and rising to the fourth highest position in the House even as she continued to have children and grow her family, made her the highest exemplar of a Douthatian natalism.
Senator Lee has already been a favorite of the Douthat reform conservative-types, and last night he condensed the arguments he has been making over the past year into a concentrated recounting of conservatives making a positive case for their agenda just as the Founding Fathers did for theirs. He also continued to make the case for a libertarian populism-infused inequality definition:
This inequality crisis presents itself in three principal forms:
immobility among the poor, who are being trapped in poverty by big-government programs;
insecurity in the middle class, where families are struggling just to get by and can’t seem to get ahead;
and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic insiders twist the immense power of the federal government to profit at the expense of everyone else.
When combined with his family-friendly tax reform plan, for one night at least, American conservatives seemed to be represented by a party that both knew to value families and children, and how to serve them.