The annual State of the Union speech can be a high point for the president who delivers it, but many times more attention is paid to the respondent. In 2009, for example, a rising GOP star for the 2012 presidential run, Louisiana Gov. Bobbie Jindal, walked down a staircase, gave the response, and fell flat in both content and delivery. Especially appalling was his theory that the federal government’s dealing with Hurricane Katrina under the GOP rule of George W. Bush was a modeled the way that the country could move forward. Criticism also came from conservatives, including columnist David Brooks and GOP political strategist David Johnson who described Jindal’s speech as “a flop.”
The next year, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, gave the response. He is now headed to prison after a high-profile trial.
In 2011, Tea Party Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), also looking toward the 2012 presidential campaign, gave an a response to the GOP response by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). To be fair, part of the problem may not have actually been hers; she was looking at the wrong camera which gave her a shifty appearance. Always the queen of platitudes and misinformation, Bachmann totally ignored the recession that began in Fall 2008 and was devastating the country at that time.
In 2013, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’s response was notable for his stopping to reach for a water bottle and take a swig from it on camera. Conservative moderator of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, approved of last year’s response from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), but MSNBC’s Alex Wagner was more accurate when she said that Rodgers looked as if she were knitting while giving the speech.
Another woman, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) was chosen as responder to beef up GOP problems with women voters. Because she doesn’t speak Spanish, as Rubio did, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) will give the translation, and those understanding Spanish got a slightly different speech. Curbelo asked the president to work with Republicans to “create permanent solutions for our immigration system, to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration, and strengthen our economy.”
A hardliner on anti-immigration, Ernst will speak at an immigration summit this weekend hosted by Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the man who claimed immigrants had thighs like melons because of their drug smuggling. Newly-elected Curbelo has said that he supported the comprehensive immigration bill that the Senate passed in 2013 and criticized GOP House members “who’ve blocked immigration reform.” Last week he was one of seven Republicans voting against amendments to stop President Obama from implementing executive actions and then voted against the main bill after the amendments were added.
Ernst is the 16th woman to give a response to SOTU with three-fourths of these being Democrats. Even Republican New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a responder in 1995, recognized why the GOP wants women to respond to the president’s speech:
“It’s hard for me to phrase this politely: Sometimes Republicans think that just putting a woman up front means somehow that women are going to feel good about the party. It is not about the messenger. It’s about the message. And until we figure that one out—while it’s nice that we have a woman as a spokesperson—if the message itself doesn’t get changed a bit, it’s not going to work.”
After four years of a formal Tea Party response to the formal GOP response to the president’s speech, Ernst is so far right that a Tea Party response this year isn’t really necessary. Yet, Rep. Curt Clawson (R-FL), who voted for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) as speaker of the House, will deliver the Tea Party’s official response through a live stream. He isn’t alone: both Paul and Rubio made responses.
Ernst is a channel for the Koch brothers. At a Dana Point (CA) secret Koch donor summit, the second one that she attended, she said it was “the exposure to this group and to this network and the opportunity to meet so many of you, that really started my trajectory.” An early underdog, Ernst became the focus of conservative outside spending groups for the Iowa race with a $12-million lead in outside spending over her Democratic opponent in the final weeks of her race. After Ernst appeared at Dana Point, Charles Koch and his wife, son, and daughter-in-law maxed-out on donations to Ernst; much of the dark money either supporting Ernst or attacking her opponent came from Koch groups such as the 60 Plus Association, American Future Fund, Freedom Partners Action Fund, the National Federation of Independent Business, and Americans for Prosperity.
The extent of the Koch network in grassroots getting-out-the-vote organizing has made it equivalent to the GOP in shaping elections. It hires consulting and technological firms to recruit and train right-wing candidates and get votes for them; in 32 states, the Koch brothers have 240 paid staff, almost as many as the GOP.
While in the Iowa state Senate, Ernst had Koch ties as a member of the Koch-funded ALEC. During her campaign, she hired a longtime Koch operative as her spokesperson. Now in office, Ernst has appointed a vice-president from a Koch-backed group as her chief of staff.
With a forced Michele Bachmann smile, Ernst began her response by highlighting her experience as a soldier and mother before she moved on to talk about her childhood poverty. Instead of actually responding to the president’s speech, she spoke about how the GOP will “change the direction” of the country. The very short speech was filled with platitudes and totally devoid of any specifics except for her call for the Keystone pipeline that, according to Ernst and the GOP, has “minimal environmental impact.”
As Josh Voorhees wrote in Slate, “To grade Ernst’s response by its policy proposals, it landed somewhere between an F and an Incomplete.”
The generalities in Ernst’s speech avoided “delicate” topics:
- Immigration (despite the amendments that the House has tried to pass);
- Working families (a focus of President Obama’s speech including minimum wage, paid sick leave, tax credits, and free community college);
- Foreign policy (no reference to Cuba and the president’s request that Congress act on ISIL);
- Climate change (with the president’s mentions about rising oceans, hotter heat waves, and dangerous floods and droughts).
It was a very safe speech. Gone was the strident Ernst who bragged about castrating hogs as training for dealing with Washington. “Washington’s full of big spenders,” she had said in the ad, with hogs in the background. “Let’s make ’em squeal.” At her initiation to the Senate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) presented her with a hog castrating tool mounted on a plaque that reads “Make ’em squeal, Joni.”
Before her campaign for Senate, Ernst spoke to a 2012 NRA meeting and talked about her devotion to gun rights and her Smith & Wesson 9 millimeter, declaring that “she would shoot first and ask questions later if the government violated her rights,” according to Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg. Ernst said:
“I believe in the right to defend myself and my family—whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”
In 2012, she also said she would let law enforcement arrest anyone trying to implement the Affordable Care Act. In 2013, she backed a “personhood” amendment to the Iowa state constitution that would ban all abortions, remove some contraception, and turn miscarriages into a crime. In her time on the Iowa state Senate, she voted “no” on student loans, community colleges, worker training, increased earned income tax credit for the working poor, tax credits to farmers who donate food banks for the hungry, and expansion of Medicaid for families of four making $32,000 a year. During her campaign, she described a federal minimum wage as “ridiculous,” referred to President Barack Obama as a dictator who might deserve impeachment, and accused the United Nations of forcing farmers off their land.
- Joni Ernst isn’t conservative enough for the Tea Party?
- And why bother to call a speech a “response” if it doesn’t respond?