The two alternate State-of-the-Union responses didn't differ much on policy. It was style--pure style--that set them apart, and from this we can probably learn something about where the tea party and the Republican Party stand.

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who offered the official GOP rebuttal a few minutes after Obama finished speaking, criticized the Democrats' new health care law, claimed that America's spending habits are pushing us toward emergency, and intimated that President Obama doesn't appreciate the problem as fully as he could.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who a few minutes later offered an alternate response presented by the group Tea Party Express, also criticized health reform, called for deep budget cuts, and suggested Obama doesn't appreciate the problem. SOTU_bug.gif

But in manner and style, they were light years apart.

Ryan, a mild-mannered policy wiz who chairs the House Budget Committee, spoke directly to the camera with straightforward, unmetaphorical language.

"No economy can sustain such high levels of debt and taxation. The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country," he said, referring to the recent health-care overhaul as "a new open-ended health care entitlement" that "made matters worse." Ryan chose the more reserved, policy-wonk terms to describe health care, not mentioning "Obamacare" or "repeal" once during his speech.

Bachmann, who chairs the House Tea Party Caucus and has spoken at rallies with Sarah Palin, delivered a response steeped in the tropes and allegories of the tea party movement in which she is a star.

For one, she talked about "Obamacare." "Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which lightbulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill," Bachmann said. "Obamacare mandates and penalties may even force many job-creators to just stop offering health insurance altogether, unless, of course, yours is one of the more than 222 privileged companies, or unions, that's already received a government waiver under Obamacare."

"I believe that America is the indispensable nation of the world," Bachmann said, turning to point to a giant TV screen showing a still image of U.S. soldiers planting the American flag at Iwo Jima, drawing a parallel to current fiscal straits. She told viewers to "Please know how important your calls, visits and letters are to the maintenance of our liberties."

The two speeches weren't so different on paper, but Bachmann's presence encapsulated so much of what tea party rhetoric has been about during the past two years. She spoke of the "miracle" of America, using an Old-Testament-style, mythic vernacular to describe America's past and vault it into linguistic greatness. She didn't look straight into the camera, but off to the side of it, pointing to visual aids behind her.

The tea party has always leaned heavily on theatrics and political hermeneutics. It's a movement grounded in metaphor--the anachronism of a "tea party" in the present day, used to describe angry recourse against policies--and from that lurid sensibility of crisis sprang so many of the tea party's slogans and accoutrements: the tri-cornered hats; the conspiratorial, Guy-Fawkes-esque murmuring at rallies of "we will remember in November."

And, above all, the energy. The sense of urgency and outrage at Obama's perceived socialist state, or at least the pricetag of the stimulus.

That's what Bachmann brought to her speech, which Ryan didn't. He was a mild-mannered policy wonk; she was a firebrand.

Surely it must say something that, under the bright lights of national TV coverage, at the most obvious opportunity to offer something in the way of a national mission statement, the GOP and the tea party didn't reveal any differences on policy. Ryan, one of the more fiscally conservative Republicans in Congress, has risen to star status within his party, while at the same time it's become increasingly difficult to tell who's a "tea partier" and who's a plain old Republican.

In fact, it's impossible to tell on policy. We've reached a point where the tea party movement's defining characteristic is its intensity and aesthetic.

Thumbnail image credit: Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons

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