The 2009 Republican response to the State of the Union was supposed to be Bobby Jindal’s coming out. The Republicans were in dire need of a fresh, young leader, and Jindal was a governor aspiring to Washington. Who better to redefine the party than a son of immigrants who was living proof of the American Dream? It was a match made in heaven.
There was just one problem: Jindal’s speech fell flat. It fell so flat that the only person who defended it, among both liberals and conservatives, was Rush Limbaugh. Instead of kick-starting his national career, Jindal’s speech prematurely ended it and confined him to the state sphere instead.
To be fair, the State of the Union response is traditionally a tough speech to nail, partially because you’re following one of the grandest, applause-filled elocutions of the entire year with a small-staged, no-audience setting that invariably looks awkward. And when your opening act is Barack Obama, a difficult task becomes near-impossible.
This year’s nominee for the Republican response speech is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Rubio is in almost exactly the same position Jindal was four years ago – a prominent politician, son of immigrants, hailing from a Southern state, and touted as “the new face” of the Republican Party. This speech may well be Rubio’s make-or-break moment, and there’s a lot Bobby Jindal could teach him.
1. Practice your delivery:
The number one complaint about Jindal’s speech was how awkward it seemed. Part of it might have been Jindal’s unexpected Southern drawl, but it also came from his constant earnest smile, the unwavering stare, even his "Happy Mardi Gras!" opening. Perhaps the best description of his delivery was a comparison to 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page. Rubio needs to decide on an attitude – aggressive? courteous? humorous? – and center his entire presentation around it.
2. Have a popular message:
Jindal’s main message was "less federal government," heavily implying that Washington was broken. Meanwhile, the country faced a national economy in meltdown. Arguing for reduced government may be fundamentally Republican, but it’s definitely not what a scared populace wants to hear, especially when the federal government is the only one capable of addressing the issue at all. Instead of sticking fast to strict party ideals, Rubio should use his image as the GOP's "new face" to craft a more time-sensitive message and make it his own.
3. Use appropriate examples:
To illustrate his concept of wasteful spending, Jindal called out $140 million spent on volcano monitoring. From a governor whose state was wrecked by a natural disaster that could have been mitigated with better monitoring, it seemed horribly hypocritical. It’s helpful to use facts or, even better, anecdotes to illustrate your point. But Rubio should choose them with care, and make sure he’s not undermining himself in the process.
4. Don’t take this opportunity lightly ... :
The opportunity to give the response to the State of the Union might be a "dubious" honor, but it’s an honor nonetheless. The party is giving you the national spotlight to prove yourself capable and ready for leadership. Being media savvy is essential. For all his flaws, Jindal had clearly taken the responsibility seriously. It’s an opportunity that likely won’t come again, so make the best of it.
5. ... But don’t take it too seriously either:
While Jindal’s stint may not have worked out, there have been plenty of politicians who gave lackluster response speeches and still went on to Washington. Among them are Governor Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who went on to serve as the Chairperson of the Democratic National Convention, and Governor Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.), who is currently the Secretary of Health and Human Services in Obama’s Cabinet.
The real lesson here is: Do badly, and you might be out or you might get a chance to stay. Do well, and you’re on the ticket for 2016.