Ken Hicks

Ken Hicks

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires that the president “from time to time” deliver to Congress information on the state of the union. Since the 1960s, presidents have taken advantage of that requirement to deliver televised addresses calculated to defend and advance their partisan agendas. In the interests of fairness, a norm has been established where the minority party is allowed to offer a rebuttal.

Delivering the opposition party’s rebuttal to the state of the union address is tough. Regardless of a president’s popularity, they stand before the combined members of the House of Representatives and Senate with anywhere from 20 to 40 million Americans viewing from home. Basking in the pomp and circumstance of the moment, even unpopular presidents enjoy the ultimate home court advantage.

The way these sacrificial lambs have imploded varies considerably. In the 1980s, recognizing President Ronald Reagan’s mastery of prepared addresses, opted in 1982 and 1985 to produce prerecorded videos with snippets of well-known Democrats and Democratic voters voicing their hopes for the future. The videos were widely criticized as contrived and over-produced.

Some respondents have adopted such an affected pose as to distract from the content of their speech. In 2008, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was tapped to give the rebuttal to President George W. Bush’s final state of the union address. Her wooden and toneless delivery and absence of an alternative vision for the direction of the country rendered her speech nearly unwatchable. In 2009, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal fell into a similar trap, delivering what Jindal himself characterized as a “teleprompter challenged” reply to President Barack Obama’s first state of the union.

In other instances, it’s the actions of the speaker that detract from the delivery. In 2011, following an enormous midterm victory that gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives, and while Rep. Paul Ryan was selected as the prime speaker, delivering a balanced and conciliatory speech. However, the newly formed Freedom Caucus insisted on its speaker, and selected Minnesota’s Michelle Bachman to articulate its vision of America. Unfortunately for Rep. Bachman, she elected disconcertingly to focus on the Tea Party Express camera rather than the live camera, distracting from her message and creating a media environment in which commentators were her misdirected eyes rather than the content of her address.

Similarly, in 2013, following President Obama’s successful reelection to a second term, Florida Sen. Marcio Rubio, an up-and-coming presidential aspirant, to deliver the rebuttal. Unfortunately for Sen. Rubio, a case of dry mouth compelled the senator to engage in a slow-motion reach for a bottle of water just off camera, which proved a comedy gold for late night comedians and his fellow politicians.

Into the pantheon of state of the union rebuttal implosions walked recently elected Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Admittedly, Sanders’ speech had its moments. Her mention of a recent successful battle with thyroid cancer was humanizing; unfortunately for Sanders, much of the remaining address was equally dehumanizing, a pastiche of right-wing tropes and poses that appeared as nothing so much as if an artificial intelligence program fed nothing but Fox News, Newsmax, and One America programming wrote the speech.

In electing to turn her address into a snarling rant, Sanders ignored a fundamental truism: politics is as much as exercise in marketing as it is governing. Historically, successful politicians have recognized the need to appeal to as many voters while repelling as few voters as possible. Even as an exclusive appeal to Republicans, Sanders’ speech disappointed, with many Trump supporters upset by the lack of a shout out.

That the speech was polarizing even for Republicans perhaps should not surprise, given the growing rift between those MAGA Republicans supporting the former president’s campaign for the 2024 nomination and a number of aspirants and their supporters hoping that indictment or some other scandal will finally put the quietus to Trump’s political career will clear the field.

Huckabee — who served a twice-impeached president and who declined to hold a press conference with the White House press corps for the last 94 days as press secretary — declared Present Biden “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.” Sanders may have won her gubernatorial race campaigning as a MAGA warrior against “wokeism,” but she does not appear to realize that Americans are coming to realize that conservative White politicians have been using “woke” as a sotto voce camouflage for racist, homophobic, and misogynistic “culture war” attacks on anyone who fails to conform to their calcified template for who qualifies as “American.”

Perhaps the most telling portion of Sanders’ speech is her assertion that the choice is no longer between Democrats and Republicans but between “normal and crazy.” That many Americans likely viewed that statement as confessional is lost on a hardened culture warrior like Sanders, who moved from the Christian Nationalist bubble of her father, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, to the equally self-contained MAGA fever swamp.

Dr. Ken Hicks is a political scientist and department head of History and Political Science at Rogers State University. The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Claremore Progress editors or Rogers State University.

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