5 ways we’d redesign the Republican State of the Union rebuttal

Jan 29, 2014

Cathy McMorris Rodgers Prepares For GOP Response To State Of The Union Address

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) sits on a couch as she prepares for responding to President Barack Obama tonight’s State of the Union address January 28, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Republican Conference, was picked to deliver the response.; Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers had a fairly low bar to reach in selling a Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Yet seated on her office sofa — flanked by a flag, fireplace and family photos — she spoke clearly but not compellingly. 

It’s a tough job. Last year, Rep. Marco Rubio’s performance included an awkward lunge and swig from a tiny bottle of Poland Springs water. It had Republicans and Democrats alike cringing in shame and schadenfreude.

Marco Rubio pauses 2013 rebuttal speech for water break

Rodgers had an opportunity to become a new star for the GOP. It was a chance to highlight what’s best about her party to an audience of millions. What would have made her response speech sing? We turned to the experts for a rebuttal redesign.

1. Remember: It’s not a speech. It’s a response. Thing big and off-the-cuff. “The president is speaking in one of the great production sound stages — the great well of our democracy, in one of the temples of our democracy,” said Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox. “Cathy McMorris Rodgers looks like a hostage in a Hyatt Hotel.” 

2. Create excitement — and bring in real life people. “Get out of the small tiny room with the small tiny couch” said Wilcox. He suggests three things: “It needs people. It needs energy.  And it needs grandeur. There’s no way these responses can be done without those elements.” 

Morty Shallman, vice president and creative director of Shallman Communications in Encino, agreed. He thought Rodgers’ speech looked like “some secret broadcast from an undisclosed location.” Why not stage a rally, he said. Think State of the Union on a smaller scale, but not as small as this response was.

Our guests point to this 2010 response by Gov. Bob McDonnell as an example:

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) responds to State of the Union

3. Make people laugh. “You can’t come on the air like you are going to introduce the next episode of ‘Downton Abbey,'” said Wilcox, noting that humor is the one thing they always forget and cut. He suggests a “warm” and “lively” approach. “This is not a somber moment. This should be easygoing. That would make it memorable,” Wilcox said.

4. Be fresh and solutions-based. Where’s the plan? What are the specifics? This is a chance for Republicans to get their opinion on the record in a respectable and non-argumentative way. “It was a missed opportunity,” said Wilcox, suggesting that Obama offered nothing new and that Rodgers should have taken advantage. 

5. Consider multiple presenters. This is a “performance business with a production value,” said Wilcox. “If you miss one or the other, it will be a complete flop.” 

Why not bring in a handful of elected officials to tackle different issues, agreed Wilcox and Shallman. An elected official should be ready to go live before the event; this way, the rebuttal is properly lit and staged. But who? McDonnell is a perfect example, said Shallman. 

Overall, the speech should have energetic charge, according to our experts. It should leave the audience saying, “Did you see what he/she said last night?” 


Jonathan Wilcox, Republican strategist; former speechwriter for California Gov. Pete Wilson

Morty Shallman, Vice President and Creative Director of Shallman Communications in Encino

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