There’s nothing supernatural about it. It’s a tough gig. “The biggest problem with giving the State of the Union response is stark contrast,” the columnist Mark Shields told me. He’s been watching responders since the tradition began in 1966 with GOP congressional leaders Sen. Everett Dirksen and Rep. Gerald Ford offering a retort to Lyndon B. Johnson. “You’re following a ceremonial event—Joint Chiefs, Supremes, ambassadors, plus, since the Gipper [Ronald Reagan], everyday heroes in the balcony. And you, the responder, are sitting in an empty room staring into a camera [and] teleprompter.”
It is a challenging task, especially for a younger politician like Rubio or Jindal, to compete with that elusive mix of celebrity, fire and stature that the president conveys. “The only one in recent memory that worked was Jim Webb’s in 2007, who had the advantages of knowing who he was, of following a lame-duck ‘W’ [President George W. Bush] and of having no White House ambitions himself,” Shields says.
Over the past five decades, the Out Party has tried solos, duos, men, women, men and women, press conferences, films and telethons in generally unsuccessful attempts to match the presidential pageantry. The Republicans had 17 responders in 1968; the Democrats used to trot out 10 or 12 at a time in an attempt to match Reagan’s star power during the early 1980s.