“I’m Joni Ernst. As a mother, a soldier, and a newly elected senator from the great state of Iowa, I am proud to speak with you tonight,” the newly minted stateswoman, standing in a pair of camo pumps in the Armed Services Committee room, told the camera. Ernst, one of the nine new Republicans elected to Washington last year, was chosen by her leadership to deliver the official response to the president’s State of the Union address, but she wasn’t alone. There were five GOP responses to the State of the Union: Carlos Curbelo, a newly elected Republican congressman from Miami, delivered a speech in Spanish. Another Florida Republican, Representative Curt Clawson, delivered his response on behalf of the tea party. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, the two members of the Senate most obviously running for president, each delivered their own speeches on YouTube.
The surplus of GOP responses may have something to do with the current disorganization within the party; it might also have to do with the fact that it’s very easy for lawmakers to build a fan base among like-minded supporters. Still, it’s hard to know why anyone would want to. If Obama’s speeches are almost always immediately forgotten, then the responses to them are, at best, instantly relegated to the dustbin of history, and at worst, fodder for silly memes.
Ernst’s was probably one of the former. Precisely if stiffly delivered, she told the story of her childhood in Iowa. “You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes,” she said, “so on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.” But times are getting tougher for everyday Americans, Ernst said. “These days, though, many families feel like they’re working harder and harder, with less and less to show for it.” Then she launched into some Republican shibboleths: approving Keystone XL, repealing health care, reforming the tax code, and defending the country against terrorism.
After she finished, Curbelo, a self-described “hijo de inmigrantes,” who has disagreed with his own party’s opposition to immigration reform, began his speech. Early reports indicated that Curbelo would simply repeat Ernst’s speech in Spanish, but it was clear he was invoking his own life story. Then, while I was still struggling to translate, his speech was cut off by Clawson’s. “I give thanks to our God for the blessings of this great nation,” he drawled, before launching into a long anecdote about basketball, which I couldn’t entirely follow. He also spoke some Spanish — “nuestra casa es su casa” — clearly enough for even the slowest gringa to understand.
Even if the speeches are most often quickly forgotten, occasionally little insights can be gleaned from them. We couldn’t have known it at the time, but Bobby Jindal’s widely mocked 2009 State of the Union response seemed to portend the demise of his popularity at home in Louisiana and as a potential 2016 contender. Rand Paul’s response, for all of its slick production and pre-speech social-media promotion, felt like the awkward opening monologue from a cable access political show. “Good evening. I wish I had better news for you, but all is not well in America,” he started. Paul called for congressional term limits, a constitutional balanced budget amendment, and for politicians to, like doctors, “do no harm.” He mentioned the unrest in Ferguson and highlighted his opposition to the NSA. Even if he is, as Politico Magazine once declared, the Most Interesting Man in Politics, his oratory hasn’t gotten the message.
But at least he gave it without creating any insta-gaffes for the press to pick over. That honor fell to Ted Cruz, whose staff accidentally uploaded a video of him screwing up to YouTube.