I’m not as surprised as the Washington Posts’ Robert Costa, but perhaps that’s due to a lowered set of expectations in the media for opposition responses to the State of the Union speech. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has been one of the GOP’s hidden gems for too long as it is, and their decision to put her out front this year represents an acknowledgment from the Republican Party that they have to do two things in 2014 in order to compete. First, Republican women have to have a much stronger voice, and the GOP has to improve its communications.
So far, at least, mission accomplished (from CBS News):
It was all there — easygoing populism, an emphasis on jobs and her family, which includes a son with Down syndrome and a Navy veteran husband. It was as if a Republican pollster had somehow created a politician with the exact profile that Republicans are looking to promote as they head toward this year’s midterm elections. Here was a pro-life, never offensive Republican woman from a Western state who grew up picking apples on a farm; a youthful, 44-year-old Republican who is known as one of the most savvy social-media users in the House, uploading countless photos to Instagram and videos to Vine.
Even better, there was no unfortunate reach for a water bottle, as painfully endured by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio last year in his response, or the kind of awkward articulation that caused long-lasting headaches for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2009, when he delivered the Republican response to an Obama economic speech. Instead, it was a relatively smooth delivery, with the congresswoman whisking through her scripted remarks on a gold couch, a triangularly-folded American flag on a shelf behind her.
No drama, no problems. You could almost hear the collective whew breathed by Republicans as they strolled through Statuary Hall, many of them watching her on their iPhones or nearby televisions. After a tumultuous year, full of shutdowns and drama, McMorris Rodgers’s almost calculated boringness and upbeat, check-the-box appeal was cheered by Republicans.
“Boringness”? This is a misreading of McMorris Rodgers and her appeal. She’s no TV-version Donna Reed or a woman to disappear into the scenery. Three years ago, I sat down with her and Paul Ryan at a briefing on the budget shortly after Republicans took control of the House, and I can attest that she’s hardly “boring.” She is a dynamic presence, and a tough talker on Republican priorities who has worked her way into leadership for a reason.
We can see it in the response, which was good on substance as well as delivery. She has an Everywoman quality, and doesn’t hesitate to deploy it. She started off the speech noting that her first job was at McDonalds, and connects to voters outside the Beltway and the thought leaders. Unlike some politicians even at this level, McMorris Rodgers knows how to express herself dynamically rather than read off of cue cards, and how to channel joy, intellect, principle, and common sense in tandem.
What about the substance of the response? For the most part, it’s a recitation of GOP principles, as one would expect, except when McMorris Rodgers talks about her family — and especially her 6-year-old son, who has Down’s Syndrome. Cole has “only made me more determined to see the potential in every human life,” McMorris Rodgers told the nation passionately. “We are not defined by our limits, but by our potential.” Shortly after that, McMorris Rodgers said that the issue facing America was not “income inequality … but opportunity inequality,” which she pledged the GOP to fight. “That gap has become far too wide,” she argued, because of the same policies Obama proposed yet again in the State of the Union speech.
It’s not just the Post or Robert Costa who noticed, either. National Journal’s Matt Vasilogambros also came away impressed, not just with the messenger but the message:
So, it looks like Rodgers is picking up right where he left off. Her tone even sounded similar to that former President George W. Bush, who used the term frequently. The concept of compassionate conservatism posits that the free market can be used to help the poor and improve other social problems, like health care and immigration. But the term has been used to describe Republicans who might be faking empathy, garnering a negative connotation.
Rodgers took a shot of Obama, saying that his promises sound good, but it doesn’t necessarily help the poor.
“The president talks a lot about income inequality,” Rodgers said. “But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality.”
And though the policies might not be any different than what Republicans have promoted in the past, McMorris Rodgers’ speech might set a tone shift to help improve public perception of a party once led by a millionaire presidential candidate who infamously belittled the “47 percent” looking for government handouts.
The question is how many people paid attention to the response. A slew of responses, planned or spontaneous, from Republicans may have distracted from McMorris Rodgers a bit last night. I suspect, though, that this one will resonate longer and farther in part because of the Congresswoman’s clear appeal to voters on the ground. We’ll see.