Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida declared himself "honored" to be asked to give the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Given the sorry history of partisan rebuttals of presidential remarks, though, he just might want to reconsider.
In the 47 years since Republicans hatched the idea, Rubio is the 120th officeholder to tackle what most politicians consider an impossible task: to try to top a president of the United States on a night when the perks of the office are very much on display.
"It is actually an awful job to have," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who is an expert on Congress. "You are either speaking to the camera with no audience, or with an audience a media person conjured up. Either way, you look so much smaller than the president standing in the House chamber behind the presidential seal."
Like Rubio, all his predecessors in the response business thought they had a chance to break through. None succeeded. Most stood alone, stiffly, in front of a flag. Some were in committee rooms. Some stayed in their home state. Others were part of an ensemble cast — 16 Republican members of Congress in 1968; 12 Democratic members in both 1983 and 1984; 11 Democrats in 1972; 10 Democrats in 1982.
The crowded Democratic rebuttals were not enough to crack President Reagan's hold on the public, though. So the party tried something radical in 1985. For the first time, someone not in Congress was part of the response: Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. But Clinton was barely seen on camera. Instead, it was his job in a slick production to talk about a Democratic focus group and to introduce the Democratic leaders of Congress.
Since then, the rebuttals have featured a lieutenant governor and seven governors. They have originated in Topeka and Baton Rouge and Richmond. But the results have been the same: almost unanimous criticism. In the decades since the first response in 1966, only three stand out for avoiding the tough reviews — Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, in 1976; Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., in 2007; and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virgnia, in 2010.
Rubio might feel less honored if he were to read what was said about most of the other 116 speakers. Most recent is the scathing reviews after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke in 2009. Jindal does not really belong on this list, because the Obama speech he was rebutting was not an official State of the Union address. But that Jan. 24, 2009, speech, though billed as an economic address, had the feel of a State of the Union for the new president. And Jindal's performance was so universally panned that it is held up as an example of what not to do when responding to the president.
It was described as "hapless" by The Daily Beast and as "amateurish," "sing-songy," and "simplistic and almost childish" by Fox News. Several critics likened Jindal to Kenneth Parcell, the page in the NBC sitcom 30 Rock.
Critics were equally tough on other responders. The Weekly Standard blasted Sen. Bob Dole in 1996, saying he "looked by turns nervous, old, halting, and confused." Comedian Jon Stewart skewered Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels last year for his pessimistic tone, calling him "Señor Crankypants" and adding, "Either that dude is living in some psychotically imagined hellscape devoid of all hope or beauty, or he is from Indiana."
Stewart was also tough when then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine gave the Democratic response in 2006. Kaine was standing in front of a fireplace in the governor's mansion, prompting Stewart on The Daily Show to contend he was doing the response in "Liberace's parlor room." Like other critics that year, he mocked the governor's arching eyebrows. And he said Kaine's rebuttal "lacked passion, insight, or any sign of carbon-based life."
Rubio can take heart, though, from the fact that all the speakers survived the gig, with only Jindal suffering lasting damage. Indeed, 24 of the responders went on to run for president. Four — Gerald Ford, Hubert Humphrey, George H.W. Bush, and Al Gore — made it to the vice presidency. Three became president: Ford, Bush, and Clinton.
"The only one of these where I think it made a difference," said Ornstein, "was Bobby Jindal, whose balloon got severely deflated after a wooden performance. Otherwise, it is a nice recognition of your stature, but nothing more than that."