In A Night At The Opera, Groucho Marx's carriage, running late, pulls up at the opera house, and he asks whether he's missed the opera. There's still a few minutes left, says the doorman.
Groucho barks at his driver: "I told you to slow that nag down.... Once around the park, and drive slowly."
That's my approach to the State of the Union. I took it once around the park and slowly, and arrived home just as President Obama was schmoozing and gladhanding his way out the door.
But, alas, I had forgotten the Official Response to the State of the Union.
This is when the other party picks some allegedly rising star to "respond" to the speech - not by addressing anything the guy actually said, but by droning robotically some bland pap that was loaded into the prompter long before the President began speaking, and usually involving some "compelling personal story", like growing up the daughter of immigrants or the son of a mailman or whatever. I would have a modicum of respect for Jeb Bush if he were to blow whatever loose change is left of his 100 million bucks with one final campaign ad along the lines I suggested a few months back: "I come from a humble upbringing. I was raised the son of a president. We had it tough back then. In those days they only had the 20-car motorcade, not the 40-car one they've got today..."
Unless you do something outrageous, like take a sip of water halfway through, these Official Responses are even more stillborn and instantly forgotten than the main speech. Last night it fell to Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina and daughter of immigrants from India, to deliver the response, and much of what she had to say was the traditional boilerplate delivered with the usual glassy-eyed prompter-face.
But with a twist. As this piece headlined it:
Nikki Haley burned Donald Trump in her SOTU response
And she did, kind of. Andrew Romano writes:
Much of President Obama's final State of the Union address was an implicit rebuke of the angry, nativist forces that have propelled Donald Trump to the top of nearly every Republican presidential primary poll.
But the American people didn't just hear one anti-Trump speech Tuesday night. They heard two.
And the remarkable thing is that the other speech came from a member of Trump's own party: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Never before has a SOTU responder used the address to criticize his or her party's presidential frontrunner. Which just goes to show how divided the GOP is right now — and how much anxiety mainstream Republicans are feeling over Trump's continued dominance.
I'll take his word that never before has an SOTU responder clobbered her own party's leading candidate in an election year. But, if so, it's a fine example of how out of touch the GOP bigshots are. Here's what the Governor actually said:
We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves: while Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around.
We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America's leadership. We need to accept that we've played a role in how and why our government is broken.
And then we need to fix it.
On Megyn Kelly's show, Frank Luntz reported that his focus group had reacted more positively to that than to anything else ever. The needle on his Enthuse-O-Meter had gone off the charts. And I can see why. I wouldn't disagree with it myself. The GOP certainly shares the blame for rampant debt, metastasizing bureaucracy, government by unread multi-trillion-dollar thousand-page bills, etc. The Democrats are officially in favor of all the preceding. The Republicans claim, at least in election years, to oppose them - and yet replacing Reid and Pelosi with McConnell, Boehner and Ryan makes not a jot or tittle of difference.
But that wasn't exactly what Governor Haley meant. She continued:
During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.
No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.
At the same time, that does not mean we just flat out open our borders. We can't do that. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.
We must fix our broken immigration system. That means stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries.
That's not actually true. By "centuries", Mrs Haley means half-a-century - since the 1965 immigration act. Before then, America, like all nations, reserved the right to pick and choose which non-citizens it wished to admit. You may suspect that her declaration that "no one who is willing to work hard... should ever feel unwelcome in this country" sounds awfully like an "open borders" policy - after all sloths and slackabeds rarely identify themselves as such. But don't worry, if it is open borders, the Governor assures us that it's not "flat out" open borders. Like President Obama and Mrs Clinton, Nikki Haley trusts to the same kind of "proper vetting" whose results can be seen on the streets of San Bernadino, Paris and Cologne.
Unfortunately for her, this sentimentalist twaddle is not where the Republican base is. She's looking at immigration policy from the point of view of the seven billion hard-working soon-to-be-vetted Americans-in-waiting around the planet. But one of the changes this election season is that the party base is considering immigration policy from the point of view of the 300 million Americans who are already here.
Well, big tent, and all that. But it wasn't enough to state her own view, she had to chide those who disagree with her. Not Obama, whose rigorous vetting she fully supports, but instead "the siren call of the angriest voices". Hmm. Who might that be? As iconoclastic liberal Mickey Kaus Tweeted:
Obama snipes @ Trump. At least the GOP rebuttal...well, it sniped @ Trump too. And they say there's a DC establishmnt...
Indeed. The "bipartisan cartel", as Ted Cruz calls it, or the two-party one-party state. And Governor Haley wasn't done:
There's an important lesson in this. In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media, or politics, there's a tendency to falsely equate noise with results.
Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.
That was intended as a dig at Trump, but in fact it applies more accurately to the McConnell/Boehner/Ryan GOP, which offers noise as a substitute for results. In the 2010 and 2014 election cycles, they promised loudly to roll back government, reduce debt, repeal ObamaCare and reject unconstitutional executive amnesty ...and then on the Wednesday morning after the Tuesday night before turned down the volume so thoroughly that all you can hear is the sound of Obama's multi-trillion-dollar steamrollers rolling noisily all over them with nary a whimper.
Whether or not "noise" equates with "results", the noise from the primary season suggests that about two-thirds of Republican voters want "outsider" candidates, however so defined. Those who want sotto voce moderation account for barely a fifth - and that's if you include Jeb as one of those "quieter" voices, which is a bit of a stretch as he's currently responsible for 100 per cent of the attack ads in my state (but don't worry, he leaves it to a donor-funded SuperPac to get "angry" and "noisy" on his behalf).
What is Mrs Haley offering instead?
If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we'd put the brakes on runaway spending and debt.
Really? You don't get that impression from the Ryan budget.
We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses.
Like No Child Left Behind and Common Core?
We would end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor.
And they say Trump lacks specifics...
We would respect differences in modern families, but we would also insist on respect for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our democracy.
So where do you stand on state-enforced baking of gay wedding cakes?
And rather than just thanking our brave men and women in uniform, we would actually strengthen our military, so both our friends and our enemies would know that America seeks peace, but when we fight wars we win them.
Yeah, well, absent Grenada and a couple of other skirmishes, you've got to go back seventy years for an example of that...
So the usual vapid cookie-cutter split-the-difference slippery bromides indifferently delivered. That's what the GOP panjandrums decided America wanted to hear in a campaign season when their own base has told them that it's insufficient. By the way, that's true not just for Trump and Cruz voters, but to one degree or another for Carson, Fiorina, Paul, Huckabee and Santorum guys, too. Defining the "moderate" vote as Rubio, Bush, Christie and Kasich, that adds up to a combined 21 per cent in recent polls.
So these days the GOP can't even schedule an insipid forgettable SOTU response without insulting the overwhelming majority of its actual voters.
Last week Brent Bozell wrote:
In Politico Tuesday, Republican elites warned that if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz become the nominee it would ruin the Republican brand.
How's that for party unity and loyalty?
More to the point: What brand?
The GOP brand is already ruined. And they ruined it.
Trump is a monster of the GOP elite's creation. And their solution to it is to use what's meant to be a rebuttal to the President as a rebuttal to their own leading candidates and the two-thirds of their voters who support them. Truly this is the dumbest political party on the planet.
Andrew Romano concludes his analysis thus:
Haley is everything Republicans wanted in 2016: youth, diversity, inclusion. Trump is what they got. Her SOTU response was a reminder of what could have been.
[An alternative take here.]