In the grand tradition of opposing party response speeches, Paul Ryan’s was pretty good. Frequently, the pre-written and tinny ripostes feel canned and phony — they’re crafted before the State of the Union is actually delivered, and often the politicians chosen to deliver them come across as hokey or parochial. (Remember Bobby Jindal?) But Ryan, despite his weirdly bloodshot eyes and uncanny Eddie Munster hair, was coherent and even-keeled. His matter-of-fact delivery helped him pass off a few misleading claims, like the fact that the stimulus “failed” (as opposed to not being enough to save the economy) and that with Obamacare, “millions of people will lose the coverage they currently have.” The idea that an interpretation of “limited government” includes having “an important role to create the conditions that promote entrepreneurship, upward mobility, and individual responsibility” is also kind of amusing.
Obama’s speech did, in a way, preempt some of Ryan’s points. By pointing out that there are flaws that could be fixed in his health-care plan, Obama poked holes in the “full repeal” philosophy. Ryan’s emphasis on that point seemed tone-deaf in context. As did his claim that “limited government” has “done more to help the poor than any other economic system ever designed.” When in the past twenty years have we had “limited government” in order to test this claim?
But Ryan made an inadvertently adept response to Obama’s contextualism of America; after hearing a speech that spent much time comparing America to foreign countries, Ryan struck a chord by hearkening back to the concept of American exceptionalism. This is a concept Obama has been accused in the past of not believing in. “These are not easy times, but America is an exceptional nation,” Ryan said. And his unofficial follow-up responder, Michele Bachmann, echoed this same sentiment in her own tea party response: “I believe America is an indispensable nation in the world,” she proclaimed.
Bachmann’s speech was not as much of a crazy mess as liberals hoped it would be. It was simple enough to dovetail with Ryan’s and not quite portray America’s right wing as divided along ideological lines (although both of them missed an opportunity to bash Obama over the deficit, a weakness he gave short shrift during his own speech). Sure, she was staring eerily off-camera the whole time. Yes, she spoke too fast and brandished her hokey down-hominess to ill effect. And, okay, her use of charts seemed amateurish, especially when she fudged datelines to misconstrue where the Bush stimulus landed on the budget calendar. But she didn’t seem quite as cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs as her detractors surely wanted her to.
Well, not until the end, at least. When she started pointing to photos of Iwo Jima, and clip-art images of the Constitution with a gavel resting on top of it, the whole thing became a bit laughable. As the camera lingered on her at the end of the speech, her look cried out, “Did I do okay??” The answer is: “Yes, you did fine.” But when you’re going toe-to-toe with an orator like Barack Obama, “okay” is a bit short of the mark. In this case, Bachmann and Ryan should hope that, together, they will leave a mark on Obama’s unusual and frank State of the Union.