So what's the best way for him to take advantage of the political environment? And what is he likely to say? Here are some educated guesses.
1. The Take Home Point: Advocate local control and limited government.
In McDonnell's inaugural address, he said this:
"The Founders recognized that the government closest to the people governs best. More often than not, Richmond knows better about the hopes and dreams of the people than Washington. And Galax and Fairfax and Virginia Beach know far better than Richmond."
McDonnell campaigned on this sentiment, and it captures what conservatives who believe in limited government feel in their bones. It also captures the frustrations of Independent voters who are concerned about government's overreach. He needs to say this in his response. In fact, he MUST say it -- if he wants the theme to resonate. State of the Union responses are infamous for being nondescript and muddled. Speakers are afraid to pound points home.
Advocating local control and limited government is the quintessential response to a State of the Union address that is likely to justify -- even subtly -- an activist government protecting the people against big problems. McDonnell's job is to make sure that voters associate his response with the notion that people at the local levels know better than Washington about how to govern their lives.
2. Tell the nation about his daughter's military service.
Liberal pontificators will try to diminish McDonnell by bringing up the infamous graduate thesis that he wrote while attending Regent Law School, in which he hypothesized whether women who entered the workforce could have a detrimental impact on the nuclear family. To preemptively counter this attack, he might mention that his daughter served in Iraq. When Jim Webb responded to George Bush's State of the Union speech in 2007, he mentioned his family's history of military service--including that of his son--and talked credibly about national security to buffer Democrats against charges that they were weak on national security in one of the best and more effective State of the Union responses to date. In a similar vein, if McDonnell mentions his daughter's military service, it will make it difficult for liberals to paint him as the Neanderthal that MSNBC viewers will no doubt be asked to believe he is.
3. Discuss education reform.
McDonnell should wax enthusiastically about how much he is looking forward to working with Obama on education reforms, particularly those dealing with charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and loosening the iron-clad grip teacher's unions have on the public education system.
First, focusing on education will show that he (and by proxy, the GOP) are willing to work with Obama on an issue that should not even be partisan in the first place.
Second, by graciously showing his support for Obama's Race to the Top program, the media might mention that Obama did not invite him to the Race to the Top kickoff event in Falls Church, Virginia -- a fairly dumb mistake by a White House seeking bipartisan cover.
Obama will probably talk a lot about the need for bipartisanship and will paint Republicans as the "Party of No" who are hell-bent on being obstructionists while being devoid of any positive ideas. The best response is to put forth a positive idea.
4. Tim Kaine = DNC = Tax increase.
McDonnell might note that Virginia's outgoing Governor, Democrat Tim Kaine, tried to leave him with a tax increase, which Virginia's General Assembly resoundingly rejected by a 97-0 vote. He'll note that the titular head of the Democratic National Committee, Kaine, tried to raise taxes while he left office during a recession. He should leave it up to the audience to decide what, if anything, that says about Democrats and the person leading the effort to re-elect Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections.
5. Don't try to do to much.
Speaking after President Obama, even in a political climate that is currently inhospitable to him, is like Skip Caray calling the second game of a doubleheader after Vin Scully handled the first. To put it simply, hardly anyone can overshadow a president, let alone one whose bread and butter is giving speeches. If McDonnell tries to do too much, he will risk accomplishing nothing save becoming a Saturday Night Live punch-line. Since McDonnell isn't going to beat Obama in an oratorical contest, he should not try to "out-speechify" him and instead keep it simple. He should focus and tell the nation that he ran on theme of "Bob's For Jobs," and articulate how conservative principles of limited government and low taxation, rather than statist-oriented solutions, are best suited to grow the economy and create jobs.
If McDonnell makes his message focused and simple and pulls off a successful response, he may emerge as the face of a political brand desperately in need of one.
Tony Lee is a political writer in Virginia. Follow him on Twitter: @TheTonyLee; e-mail him at TheTonyJLee@Gmail.com ... this post is adapted from his post on Dr. Bob Holsworth's blog on Virginia Politics, www.virginiatomorrow.com.
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