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February 3, 2005
TNR: Democratic Response To SOTU Bland, Indistinct

Inspired by our interview of Peter Beinart this evening on the Hugh Hewitt show, I decided to take a read through The New Republic to find out what the center-left has to say about the speeches last night by George Bush and the tag-team of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. I expected a defense of the Democratic response similar to that Beinart offerd Mitch and I in our interview -- that the two minority leaders had offered a serviceable if unspectacular counterpoint to Bush's "misleading" rhetoric on just about every topic.

Instead, Michael Crowley writes a significant critique of both Pelosi and Reid along the same lines I wrote last night after their delivery of the Democratic response. Crowley refuses to tow the party line and scolds the Democrats for their vacuous, predictable ambiguity (subscription required):

That congressional Democrats are still struggling to find their voice was plainly evident in last night's Democratic response by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic leaders offered neither a clear vision for their party nor particularly effective counterattacks on the president's agenda. Instead, as is the party's wont, they delivered a bland mishmash of familiar, indistinct ideas. Compared to President Bush's symphonic rhetoric about freedom and democracy and the social compact between generations, the Democrats sounded like a high-school marching band.

Take Reid's discussion of domestic policy. ... This is the sort of cluttered checklist you'd expect at a local candidates' forum, not during a prime-time address. Then again, when Reid tried to be more grandiose, the effects were even more distressing. Apparently seeking to harness some of the world-historical majesty of Bush's speech, Reid invoked the post-World War II rebuilding of Europe and proclaimed, "We need ... a Marshall Plan for America." That's not only a kooky formulation--akin to saying we need a foreign policy toward ourselves--it also wrongheadedly implies a zero-sum choice between building democracy abroad and funding domestic priorities.

Crowley found Reid's manner even more off-putting than I did; I actually thought that Reid came across more pleasantly than his predecessor, Tom Daschle, did last year. He chastises Reid for laconically moving through the same tired litany of Democratic generalities, and found Reid's story about a Searchlight boy struck an odd note:

Had he spent less time ticking off issues like education and health care in forgettable fashion Reid might have issued a stinging refutation of the way Bush exaggerates the alleged crisis the system faces. And instead of telling a cornball story about a boy from his hometown with a skateboard, why not share the powerful story of some old lady who depends on Social Security to survive--and then vow into the camera that Democrats will always ensure that Social Security will be there for the seniors of future generations?

I found that story odd, too. Why does a politician who gets his first real shot at a national TV audience try to connect with the nation by telling a story where he's the hero? Does America really need yet another Democratic egotist for a leader, or does Reid think that the Democrats should clone John Kerry?

Crowley considered Pelosi a mild improvement, an analysis with which I thoroughly disagree. He focuses on Pelosi's arguments, which he claims were marginally better and somewhat more specific, but her delivery, like last year, completely overshadowed her rhetoric. Both Crowley and Beinart make a point of noting that following a SOTU speech is impossible to make memorable, but in Pelosi's case, they're sorely mistaken. Her face, last year and this, was a rictus of either terror or Botox, and her words slid out her grimacing mouth as if they were greased. Quite frankly, I became so riveted by the display that her cliches on Iraq, which Crowley duly notes, mattered little to the performance. She could have read the collected works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the spectacle would still have had its macabre fascination.

I understand the challenge of following the spectacle of a SOTU speech. What I don't understand is why with orators like Barack Obama in their midst who have proven their ability to connect with American voters, the Democrats insist on standing on tradition and putting these two stiffs on national TV and radio, and then arming them with the most listless recitation of standard Democratic pablum imaginable. If the Democrats intend on capturing the minds and spirit of the American people, they have to do much better than Pelosi, Reid, and the tired old generalities they used last night.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 3, 2005 9:10 PM

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