Paul Ryan's SOTU Response: What Could Go Wrong?

Ryan seems perfect for the job, but something always goes haywire

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is exactly the sort of telegenic, mild-mannered spokesman the new Republican House needs as its leaders seek to reintroduce the party. He's known as one of the intellectuals of the GOP, and is respected by Democrats for his willingness to go deep into the weeds of budget policy -- even if he ends up far to the right of a place they consider wise. He's good looking, young and has the sort of only-in-Washington wonky charisma that tends to augur a bright political future.

So when Ryan delivers the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night, it seems like nothing could go wrong.

SOTU_bug.gifNot so. For a variety of reasons, the contemporary televised State of the Union response almost never goes well for the person who delivers it. The best outcome is that the politician does him or herself no long-term harm.

What could go wrong for Ryan:

Awkward Optics. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), like Ryan, was considered one of his party's rising stars -- telegenic, innovative, policy-oriented -- when he gave the rebuttal in 2009. All it took was some Twitter chatter and the next thing he knew, he was Kenneth the Page from "30 Rock." Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) went from a potential vice presidential pick to, uh, someone eventually tapped to run the Department of Health and Human Services after delivering a flat rebuttal in 2008 that demonstrated that what matters in Kansas doesn't necessarily translate well on the national stage. And does anyone recall anything about Democratic Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's 2006 response except that thing his left eyebrow kept doing?

After the State of the Union, reporters are antsy and tired, and remaining television watchers are tired and possibly even bored. The response speech will be "available as prepared" and published online the moment it begins. That means that the actual televised response is watched mainly as theater -- and by a distracted audience, to boot.

Ryan's Clark Kent good looks and manner of presentation would seem likely to protect him from mockery, but you never know. All it takes is one disturbingly apt comparison or one physical twitch to set off a career-impeding narrative.

Bad Choice of Anecdotes. Jindal sought to attack wasteful spending by going after, among other things, the U.S. Geological Survey's $140 million volcano monitoring budget -- and people are still thwacking him for it. Volcano monitoring turned out to be important, as political opponents were quick to remind the next time one erupted. And the next time. And the next.

A Bad Setting. Last year, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) gave his response from the Virginia House of Delegates, which looked like a Spinal Tap Tiny Stonehenge version of the U.S. House of Representatives. Kaine's Masterpiece Theatre-style setting, replete with fireplace, in the state's Executive Mansion contrasted poorly with the crowded majesty of the Capitol.

Like all other SOTU-responders, they were at a disadvantage from the start. No matter how good Ryan's speech is, the setting and context will inevitably make him look small -- or else, potentially, overly ambitious.

Bad Political Judgment. If Ryan focuses on his own deficit-cutting proposals, he could turn moderates and independents off, no matter how well-spoken he is. Ryan has proposed a voucher system for Medicare and private accounts for Social Security, and, while the GOP has heavily criticized the ballooning national debt, Americans are deeply opposed to cuts and changes to these two programs. In fact, Ryan's own budget proposals have been too conservative for other Republicans, with the House Republican Conference signing onto a less aggressive deficit-cutting plan than the one Ryan laid out last year.

Ryan is a policy polymath, but if he gets too specific in calling for entitlement cuts, he could paint himself and his party right into a corner.

Seeming Overly Partisan--or Not Partisan Enough. Ryan will have to be careful to strike the right tone, and to gauge how aggressive he needs to be in responding to Obama.

Obama will undoubtedly mention Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in his address, and the president is likely to renew his call for civility in our political discussion. At the same time, fiscal issues have riled the passions of the GOP base these past two years, and tea partiers in particular will want to see Ryan come out swinging.

Then-Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was criticized for coming across as weak in his 2005 rebuttal, and Democrat Sen. Jim Webb (another Virginian!) won praise for his robust, to-hell-with-handlers 2007 response. But tone is a hard thing to get right in what remains a highly partisan moment -- and with nearly 60 members of the House and Senate pledging to cross the aisle and sit alongside their political foes, the already tricky task will be that much trickier.

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