Newly elected Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, just weeks into her new gig, has a very hard job to do tonight. She's set to follow President Obama's State of the Union address with her own Republican response. This is a thankless task.
Supposedly, we are to believe, this is an honor. It has been framed by party leaders and pundits as a path to stardom, a sign that Ernst has some standing and a future in her party. Don't believe it. She has a future, but her response won't likely be a memorable launching pad.
People only remember the response to the State of the Union when it goes badly. (It's kind of like NFL refereeing -- memorable only in its poor execution.) Like it did for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal who displayed about as much charisma as Steve Urkel when he delivered the response in 2009. And of course Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had his bottled water moment. (Rubio's internal thought process: "If I maintain eye contact with the camera, then maybe nobody will notice that I'm about to grab this tiny bottle of water and take a tiny sip").
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), did "well" only because she got all the words out. Nobody remembers what she said. But she did maintain eye contact. Job, done. But it's that very stilted format that makes these responses so downright weird and hard to master.
Both the State of the Union speech and the response to it are made-for-television events. President Obama will shake hands on his way to the lectern, somebody will maybe tell a joke, tell him to come visit their state. He will speak, people will cheer or not. It's fancy and familial at the same time. And most of all it's political theater that works very well on television. (Or an Ipad/Kindle/phone).
The SOTU response is also supposed to be political theater. But it comes after what is typically a long (hour plus) speech and well past 10 pm on the East Coast. So, no one pays much attention to start.
Then there is the speech itself. If Ernst's address is like what we've seen before, she will sit in front of a camera for 1o straight minutes and talk. Ten minutes of talking. What we know for sure is that this will be boring. It can't help but be anything else. There probably won't be an audience. And if not, that means the frisson of applause or boos will also be absent. No laughter at a funny aside. No partisan-based sitting or standing. Just a person, who will sit or stand, look into a camera and say words, probably tossing in a reference to hogs. For 10 straight minutes. When most people in the east are either in bed or on their way there. This is not a good gig.
The only corollary in terms of staging is an Oval Office address. But that comes in dire times, when the President has to deliver a very important message about war or disaster. It's not an annual and formulaic tradition.
So, is there a way to improve the SOTU response? Maybe. The surefire way to make it better is just to do away with it or get Morgan Freeman to deliver it every single time. (Or maybe Frank Caliendo doing Morgan Freeman.) But that's probably not going to happen. One doable solution might be to have an audience of supporters and opponents . Ex-Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell tried this in 2010, in what looked to be like the closest thing to a mini-State of the Union we've seen in recent years. Still, there was something stilted about delivering a speech in a House chamber before an audience of people who will just cheer. Also, it's probably not a good idea to use the response as a platform to introduce someone new. Going with a rookie only magnifies the this-is-not-the-president deficit that automatically dogs the response.
Maybe Ernst, known for castrating hogs, will defy the odds and chatter of her 2016 Vice Presidential shortlisting will get an extra boost. Most likely, she'll just be average. Which means she won't mess up. Which at this point amounts to a victory.