Is the State of the Union response cursed or is it just badly produced? I’ll leave it to others to debate the former proposition, but I think it’s time for someone to state the obvious about the latter. The State of the Union response is often underwhelming.
In fact, it can be hard to watch at times even if you agree, generally, with the person speaking. The good news is that some of the problems with the SOTU response are fixable if we approach it from the correct perspective.
First, let’s just admit what we’re dealing with. The State of the Union is a live TV special about politics featuring a national celebrity. Many of the proposals made during the SOTU never come to fruition. The policies being proposed are often trail balloons, some of which get shot down immediately. What’s real about the SOTU is the production itself.
Think about all the pomp and circumstance involved. The president is heralded and enters the room like a boxer making his way to the ring or a celebrity on the red carpet. He is greeted and applauded and then, eventually, takes his place behind the podium and begins his performance. He and the audience are watched by multiple cameras. With every applause line there is not just polite applause but sometimes cheers and a standing ovation that takes a moment to die down. The SOTU address is more like a sitcom filmed before a live studio audience than like watching a film.
Now consider the SOTU response. It’s one person, usually in a smallish space. There is one camera which, at most, might zoom in a bit during the speech. There is no sense of scope, or importance, or drama. There is no reaction to anything that is said. Imagine a sitcom filmed without a live audience and broadcast without the benefit of a laugh-track. Would anyone laugh or would the whole thing just seem awkward as can be?
And it’s not just the setting that’s the problem. Another problem is that the SOTU response isn’t usually an actual response. No one has a copy of the president’s speech in advance (not long in advance) so there’s no way to respond to what he actually said. Instead, we often get a speech full of generic talking points (e.g. tax hikes are bad). The result is that the speech not only looks small and unimportant, it sounds vague and disconnected. The president may have made 5 specific policy proposals in his SOTU, but chances are the SOTUR will respond directly to none of them.
With all of that in mind, here are 5 ways the GOP could do better next year:
1) Think Big – Stop holding the SOTUR in the broom closet where they store the extra flags. If you’re going to respond to the president, respond in a way that doesn’t immediately put you at a huge disadvantage. Granted, there’s no way to match the pomp and circumstance of the SOTU, and it would probably be unwise to try, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for one camera in a small office. Think bigger. Why not hold the response in a large hall, something big enough to allow for a real audience, and a multi-camera shoot which can give more than one awkward shot of the speaker.
2) Real People – How hard would it be to fill a hall with 100 GOP lawmakers and 200 selected individuals from around the country. This would accomplish two things: visually, it would demonstrate that there are people who want to hear this speech, and aurally, it creates a sense of interaction. There would be real applause, rather than stretches of silence, and images of real people listening to the words being spoken, rather than trying to avoid uncomfortable silence between every paragraph or sentence. There could even be standing ovations and possibly even some hoots and cheers. That’s good! It would be a huge improvement.
3) People as Points – I’m not going to call them props, but we all know how this works at the SOTU (for both parties). The president invites a number of special guests who then feature in the actual content of his speech. Could we even have a SOTU without this trope? Until we do, the SOTU response should include it too. There are real people out there whose stories could be an object lesson for a GOP response. Having them there and having them as a focus of attention will give the speech some specificity and shape, maybe even some gravitas. Plus, it’s another way to remind people that this matters, that the SOTU response is about more than just attacking the president.
4) Get Specific – Americans are not, generally speaking, wonks. Their eyes mostly glaze over when anyone starts talking about the particulars of a bill, even an important one. (I would argue that’s probably a good thing, but we’ll save that for another time.) The point is that you can’t remain at the 30,000-foot level for an entire speech, especially one billed as a response to another speech. If it’s not possible to response to the president’s particulars then present some of your own. The SOTUR needs to be more than amusing anecdotes and jabs. It needs some substance. Pick an issue on which there is broad agreement and make the case for action. Again, maybe the action will never happen. The same is true for the SOTU. It doesn’t matter ultimately. What matters is that people know you’re more than just a critic. You have a plan or at least parts of one. Get specific enough to convince viewers that’s the case.
5) Delay a Day – I’m going way out there with this last recommendation. One of the biggest problems with the SOTU response is that it’s not a response at all. Even if you fix some of the other problems outlined above, you’d still have a speech that doesn’t really merit the name “response.” And there’s no way to fix that so long as we insist the response be aired moments after the SOTU ends. It takes time to fact-check what the president said and to carefully write a rejoinder. But a brief, accurate response could be ready by the next day. If the SOTU response was aired 24 hours later, you could actually point out some of the falsehoods and unmentioned assumptions. It could actually be a response.
Will all of this work? Well, like any change, it’s a risk. As David Freddoso pointed out on Twitter, changing the style of the SOTU response has been tried before and the results were not always good (though they are pretty amusing in retrospect). A badly produced or over-produced response could be worse than the current minimalist approach.
That said, the current SOTU response is a big missed opportunity. The ratings for the most recent SOTU were at a 15-year low, but despite that, about 31 million people watched. That’s pretty good considering an episode of TV’s highest-rated show, The Walking Dead, only pulls about 15 million viewers. Adopting 4 or all 5 of the above recommendations could help make the SOTU response a real opportunity to respond and present an attractive alternative. Isn’t that worth taking a little risk?