Ryan slated to deliver SOTU response on Tuesday

Did Paul Ryan lose a bet with John Boehner?  Being honored with the task of responding to a State of the Union speech is somewhat akin to following Justin Bieber on stage to sing a medley of 1950s Broadway show tunes to an audience of teeny-boppers.  However, the Republican policy master from Wisconsin will bravely give it his best on Tuesday, even though history shows that one’s best doesn’t matter:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced today that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) will deliver the Republican address following the President’s State of the Union address to Congress on January 25, 2011. Last year – in an unprecedented failure – Congressional Democrats chose not to pass, or even propose a budget, punting on a duty that represents the most basic responsibility of governing. Chairman Ryan will deliver the Republican address Tuesday night from the House Budget Committee hearing room, where the Democrats’ spending spree will end and the Republicans’ push for a fiscally responsible budget that cuts spending will begin.

In making the announcement, the GOP leaders noted that Chairman Ryan is a leading voice for fiscal discipline and common-sense solutions to cut spending and create jobs. Known for his thoughtful and detailed critiques of big-government policies, Ryan has helped put to rest the Democrats’ argument that more government spending and higher taxes is the answer to most of our nation’s ills. His commitment to free enterprise and limited government make him the right choice to outline a vision for how a smaller, less costly government will help create the right conditions for the creation of good, private sector jobs.

“Paul Ryan is uniquely qualified to address the state of our economy and the fiscal challenges that face our country,”
said Speaker Boehner. “We’re broke, and decisive action is needed to help our economy get back to creating jobs and end the spending binge in Washington that threatens our children’s future. I’m pleased that Paul will be outlining a common-sense vision for moving our country forward.”

Leader McConnell said, “Paul Ryan has spent the better part of the last two years explaining exactly why the Democrat agenda has been so bad for jobs and the economy, and why we need to ditch the government-driven approach in favor of creative, common-sense solutions that put the American people back in charge. Chairman Ryan’s unique understanding of the fiscal problems we face, his command of policy, and his adherence to the principles of our nation’s founding make him an excellent spokesman for the path that Americans want Washington to take.”

This surprises me a little, given the smart strategy employed by the GOP last year.  In 2010, they had Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell give the SOTU response from the floor of the Virginia Assembly, with an audience of Republican legislators.  While the optics didn’t reach the same level of grandeur as a President speaking in front of a joint session of Congress, it did at least frame the speech in a similar manner.  In other years, both Democrats and Republicans have had their SOTU responses staged from a studio with no audience at all, a jarring change from the large, cheering spectacle viewers had just witnessed.  I assumed that Republicans might want to repeat last year’s strategy with another Republican governor, perhaps Chris Christie, speaking on fiscal reform.

Of course, Ryan is the House’s leading light on fiscal reform.  Ryan has excellent speaking skills and knows the data to a great level of detail, so he will have no trouble communicating the need for real budget reductions and restructuring to the American people — at least those still paying attention by the time he speaks.  That’s likely to be around 10:30 ET at the earliest, since Obama’s speech is scheduled to start at 9 pm ET and will certainly go more than an hour. Will Ryan spend much time on his specialty of entitlement reform?  Will Obama even bring the topic up in the SOTU?  That may make for enough suspense to keep people tuned in.

Boehner and McConnell apparently decided to make the House the focus of fiscal reform, which is a smart strategy as far as the overall thrust of the 112th Session goes.  I’m not sure that they’ve chosen wisely on the optics in this particular case.  The best result for Ryan will be that he doesn’t do himself any damage, as did Bobby Jindal in the 2009 response, but I’m not hopeful for a lot of upside to another traditional SOTU response.

Update: Bryan Pick offered some advice a couple of months ago about how the GOP should think outside the box:

Take advantage of the fact that they have fewer restraints.

First, make it a table discussion with more than one responder.  As a suggestion, include at least one governor to remind the audience that there are independent sources of authority, laboratories of policy that should retain their power to handle local problems (a big-city mayor could also do), and also include a legislator representing the opposition in Congress to directly address the president’s agenda on the federal level.

This also takes the pressure off of any one person to speak for the party, and signals that the opposition is having a frank conversation, not speaking press-release style through the great filter of lawyers and focus-group-tested language.  Make good use of stars like Paul Ryan and Chris Christie who have shown they’re champs at off-the-cuff communication and aren’t afraid to take on big issues.  Bobby Jindal would have been far better suited to this than talking into a camera solo.

Second, use resources the president doesn’t have.  The president is limited by the tradition of giving his speech in the chamber of the House of Representatives, which only affords him a microphone, a teleprompter and an audience.  Instead of trying to beat the president at his own game, use a modern-looking studio, where the responders can make use of supporting staff and visual aids like charts and video.

There’s more along those lines; hopefully Boehner and McConnell will consider at least some of it.