SOTU Responses: The GOP Establishment vs. the Tea Party

By Conor Friedersdorf

The Republican Party's two factions each assigned someone to respond to President Obama's speech. Which had more to offer? 


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Above is the official Republican Party response to President Obama's State of the Union address. It was delivered by Mitch Daniels, the fiscally conservative governor of Indiana and a favorite of conservative intellectuals. Would it be too much trouble to watch the first minute or two, or to skip around a bit to some random snippets? Said Andrew Sullivan, "It was what a sane Republican critique of this presidency would be." Agree or disagree with that characterization, or the substance of Daniels speech, this much is clear: his effort was far more cogent, substantive and persuasive than the equivalent official response by the Tea Party Express.

Herman Cain delivered it:

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It's a telling juxtaposition.

Despite its complaints about the Republican establishment, many of them justified, the Tea Party has nothing better to offer in the way of presidential candidates (indeed, its succession of champions has often been much worse). To be fair, there are a lot of confounding factors in campaigns, whereas choosing a speaker to respond to the State of the Union is a discrete challenge. Tasked with assigning anyone in America to do so, the Tea Party Express chose Herman Cain. He gave a vague, rambling address that was more banal, strung together talking points than coherent, useful argument. Why is this the best the GOP's insurgent faction can do?

There can be no doubt that Mitch Daniels has far more to offer conservatism, the Republican Party, and the United States than Herman Cain ever did. To their credit, a few conservative intellectuals like Peter Robinson, Ross Douthat, and Bill Kristol have long appreciated the merits of the Indiana governor, however implausible their yearning for his candidacy. Among GOP voters, there just hasn't been much enthusiasm for a Daniels bid, nor is there much enthusiasm now. In contrast, Cain rose to the front of the pack in the GOP primary, and might've staid there a lot longer, or at least garnered low double-digit support, if not for his sex scandal.

Tea Party voters would be better served rallying around a guy like Daniels than any of the champions they've trotted out, whether outside the presidential race, like Sarah Palin, or inside it, like Rick Perry. But they persist in elevating inferior pols. Elsewhere I've advanced some theories about why they end up with the wrong champions. Here I just want to say that, looking at the Daniels speech and the Cain speech side by side, it is very hard to deny that they end up with inferior champions.

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