House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan did an admirable job rebutting President Obama’s state of the union speech tonight. As Republicans with more stature have learned the hard way, ahem Bobby Jindal, answering the President’s hour-long speech in under 15 minutes can be tough. But the Wisconsin Republican’s biggest competition didn’t come from Obama – it came from his own party. The Tea Party Express decided that Ryan’s take wasn’t enough: they wanted to hear what one of their own made of the speech and so they asked Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota to deliver a second response.
Bachmann and Paul hit many of the same notes: the deficit is unacceptably large, as is the government. Dems have been on a smorgasbord of spending and regulation and need to be reined in. And while both focused on Obama and the Democrats, both speeches were equally aimed at each other: Ryan in placating the Tea Party and the Tea Party in holding him and the establishment accountable. The dueling speeches also showed the challenge the GOP leaders have in unifying their party and demonstrated that they will have to spend as much, if not more time, looking inwards – or to the right – as they do dealing Obama and the Democrats.
Both Ryan and Bachmann relitigated the last two years – the stimulus, health care reform, new regulations — sometimes with a brittle edge. Looking forward, they focused solely on slashing spending and shrinking the deficit; they ventured into no new policies or issues. Neither detailed how balancing the books might be done: no mentions were made of entitlement or defense spending, by far the biggest pieces in the budget. They did not look at places where Democrats and Republicans could find common ground. By contrast Obama sounded conciliatory; he named a range of areas where he hoped to work with Republicans from Afghanistan to reforming medical malpractice to clean energy technology. Obama said the word “forward” five times and only addressed his record of the past two years once, when he made the case why not to repeal health care reform. By comparison, Ryan never uttered the word “forward” and Bachmann said it only once. Granted, sweeping and visionary rhetoric is hard to pull off in a short rebuttal, but both speeches focused so intently on budget issues it was hard not to come off as one-noted.
Ryan was lauded by the cable talking heads – and this is a sampling of from CNN, MSNBC and Fox from throughout the day — as the “establishment” responder, as “one of the smartest guys in Congress” and some one who could “turn the page from George W. Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility.” He was more willing to cede ground: “Our debt is the product of acts by many presidents and many Congresses over many years,” he said. “No one person or party is responsible for it.” But, he wasn’t short of red meat. “It’s no coincidence that trust in government is at an all-time low now that the size of government is at an all-time high,” he said. “The President and the Democratic Leadership have shown, by their actions, that they believe government needs to increase its size and its reach, its price tag and its power.”
At least one commentator, Erik Erickson of RedState.com, said on CNN he preferred Bachmann’s speech for her use of simple, straightforward language as is “preferred by the Tea Party.” Bachmann, founder and chair of the House Tea Party Caucus, used a chart to demonstrate that deficits, while “large” under Bush, “ballooned” under Obama. She reminded viewers that November’s electoral successes came on the back of the Tea Party movement. “Thanks to you, there’s reason for all of us to have hope that real spending cuts are coming, because last November, you went to the polls, and you voted out the big-spending politicians and you put in their place great men and women with a commitment to follow our Constitution and cut the size of government,” she said.
It’s not uncommon for other Party members – especially those running for President — to give on-camera responses to a President’s state of the union. Obama himself rebutted Bush’s 2008 speech while then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius gave the official response. John Edwards rebutted Bush’s 2007 speech, despite the fact that Virginia Senator Jim Webb had been selected for the task. Bachmann has hinted she might make a bid for the GOP nomination in 2012, even visiting Iowa earlier this month. But what made this into something more than a would-be candidate grandstanding is the frienenenies relationship between the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. GOP leaders were less than thrilled that Bachmann chose to give the speech. She was originally meant to deliver it from the Capitol Hill Club – a bastion of the Republican establishment – but it was moved last minute to the National Press Club. Likewise, there were grumblings about the pool status the television networks bestowed on Bachmann – the same status as Ryan, thus ensuring her speech would get play on all the networks though only CNN chose to air it live in its entirety. (Interestingly, though her speech was originally only meant to air on the Tea Party Express website, it was Fox News that offered the pool coverage.) “Paul Ryan is giving the official Republican response,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters on Capitol Hill on Monday. “Michele Bachmann, just as the other 534 members of the House and Senate, are going to have opinions as to the State of the Union.”
The two responses cap a budget-focused week for House Republicans – one nearly as schizophrenic as Tuesday’s performances. The House voted earlier Tuesday to give Ryan the power to slash what’s left of the 2011 budget; he has said he would like to see reductions of up to $60 billion. The conservative Republican Study Committee, meanwhile, put out a plan to cut $2.5 trillion over the next decade. Many of these cuts, though, are unrealistic and would never pass the Senate – such as the elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts and the privatization of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Amtrak. Privately, some GOP aides expressed annoyance that the RSC would step on the leadership’s message while giving Democrats cannon fodder with proposals they could cast as outside the mainstream. Ryan’s approach, while still tougher than Dems say they can stomach, would at least give the appropriators the power to pick which programs enacted over the last two years they’d like to keep. Democrats, meanwhile, have sat back and watched the intra-party battle with Schadenfreude. “The Republican disarray has reached epic proportions competing to see which wing of the party can appeal to the most extreme elements of their base as they fight over whether to privatize Social Security and dismantle Medicare or go even further,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
It was nearly four years ago, on Feb. 10, 2007, that Obama made his first presidential campaign speech. If this state of the union was the first speech of his reelection campaign, he’s clearly already looking to reclaim the center – and to rave reviews at the polls. Unless the GOP – both in Congress and on the 2012 field – unites, they risk ceding increasing ground to Obama and the Democrats. Two GOP state-of-the-union responses in 2012 would not bode well for them that November.