Opinion

Ernst draws short straw with Obama response

The new senator from Iowa, Joni Ernst, has been tapped to give the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address tonight. It’s going to be awful.

Not because of Ernst. She’s as likely to be up to the job as anyone.No, it’s because all SOTU responses are awful.

It’s an impossible situation. The president gets the pomp and ceremony: the House chamber, the dignitaries, the sergeant at arms announcing: “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.”

As for the response, the out-party sometimes tries to simulate a ceremony, which inevitably comes up short. Sometimes the responder is in a room with a camera, and that doesn’t work, either.

What the president says often has immediate policy implications. The response? Republicans can describe what they intend to do, but even with majorities in both chambers, they can’t really promise to follow through.

Ernst certainly can’t make promises on behalf of House Republicans. It’s not that Congress isn’t equally powerful; it wins plenty of battles in times of divided government. It’s just that there’s no congressional equivalent of executive action.

The biggest problem: Who wants to watch a second political speech right after one that usually goes on too long and is typically third-rate oratory?

The best strategy for the out-party is to give the response to a group of obscure members of Congress to raise their profile (and maybe raise a little money for their future electoral efforts). Even an effort that gets terrible reviews can work; Republicans, in particular, are always eager to reward anyone who gets bashed by the media, so a terrible performance might be able to generate plenty of fundraising.

The problem with Ernst as the responder is that she’s not up for re-election for a long time, so this isn’t really going to do her a lot of good. Still, as with last year’s response from Washington state’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republicans are at least headed in the right direction – they’re selecting obscure politicians who can be helped by the raised profile.

Jonathan Berstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Email him at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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