Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will give the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union speech tonight, and while it will give Rubio a chance to be seen by millions of Americans, recent history says it will be no help to his 2016 presidential candidacy. Right after the announcement, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote, "Meet Marco Rubio, the new leader of the Republican party." Sadly, this title might not last till the end of the week. Only one State of the Union first responder has ever gone on to become president: Gerald Ford. And he wasn't even elected -- Richard Nixon appointed him to replace vice-president Spiro Agnew, and then Nixon resigned. The road to the White House is strewn with the bodies of State of the Union responders who looked like dweebs.
Part of this is because we're all so terribly superficial. The President of the United States is a hard act for anyone to follow because he's speaking in the grand setting before Congress, with all the fancy chairs and curtains and flags, and guaranteed applause from hundreds of powerful people. Rebutters speak from quiet little foyers, dens, and offices. The most famous failed rebutter in recent years is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was touted as the next big thing in the GOP until his speech four years ago. He looked dopey. His peppy, chipper tone made him sound like Mr. Rogers.
In 2011, Rep. Michelle Bachmann gave the "Tea Party response" to Obama's speech. She looked in the wrong camera, failing to make eye contact with the TV audience. (She also compared Iwo Jima to the federal debt.) Bachmann's eyes were mocked on Saturday Night Live, though Bachmann was a good sport about it. While the congresswoman did go on to run for president, she won no primaries. And she was never able to shake her crazy-eyed image.
Tim Kaine gave the Democrats' response in 2006, when he was Virginia's governor (he's now a senator). His speech was a little boring, and he didn't quite have his dramatic pauses nailed. The most memorable thing about it was Kaine's crazy left eyebrow. It kept popping high above the right one. A sample here from just the first few minutes of his speech:
Kaine's speech came at an important moment. In 10 months, Democrats would retake majorities in the House and Senate. But with Kaine's speech, you had no sense that was coming. This is because people could only talk about his eyebrows.
In 2005, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi delivered a joint response to George W. Bush's State of the Union speech. Bush had just crushed John Kerry in the 2004 election, and Republicans gained seats in Congress. Reid and Pelosi were seated, and their older faces a sad contrast to Bush's manly man style. They were critical of the Iraq war, but too timid to actually call for an end to it, saying, "We all know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force. Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos."
Will Rubio rise above? He's young, and he's a better speaker than many of the failed rebutters who have gone before him. But he'll also need good set designers, nice lighting, knowledge of how to look into the camera, and control over his eyebrows.
(Pelosi and Reid photo by the Associated Press.)