Underwhelming performance largely a product of tired format, should serve as catalyst for GOP adaptation
I watched the Republican response twice, first when it came up live on NBC and again when it was re-broadcast on Fox News Channel at about 1:30 a.m. I was up studying during the second go-round, and found myself curious as to how Jindal would come across without the lead-in from the president and a joint session of Congress.
The first time I saw the response, I was underwhelmed. I like Bobby Jindal but, last night, he was lacking. Not necessarily in content, but in delivery. He looked stiff while walking up to the camera. His tone was repetitive in lilt and rhythm and sounded, at times, as though he was talking about politics to a group of schoolchildren. This didn’t seem like the Jindal I’ve seen at all. The Jindal I know has shown himself time and time again to be brilliant, to be an absolute dynamo — last night, this man fell flat.
The speech was substantively good and it included all of the right arguments, but it seemed a little too cordial and a little too unorganized, a bit like a car in neutral, struggling to get into gear. Good points and solid arguments and the articulation of conservative principles seemed lost in the shuffle, part of a speech that was a bit tedious in tone and tempo and emphasis. Even with the help of my ADD medication, I had trouble staying focused on what the governor was saying. Unfortunately, I had no such trouble keeping focused on what the president had been saying a few minutes earlier. Bobby Jindal is capable of great passion, of really inspiring with his oratory — last night, I didn’t see that.
The second time I caught Jindal’s response, however, while Jindal’s delivery wasn’t any more palatable than it was the first time, the real problem became clear — we’re going to have three more of these State of the Union-type addresses and, as the economy gets worse and worse, each will present the Republican party with a unique opportunity to separate itself from Barack Obama and, to a fairly captive audience–American Idol is preempted, after all–explain to the American people why conservative principles work while big-government liberalism has caused the problems they see each and every day. These opportunities simply cannot be squandered.
The problem is inherent in the process, a process which last night got the better of the beleaguered Jindal. Whether the response is coming from a Democrat or a Republican, it’s always the same. Minutes after seeing a speech performed nicely in front of a packed, grandiose House chamber with applause and standing ovations interspersed throughout, television viewers are whisked into the office, living room, den, foyer or bathroom of some unlucky schlub charged essentially with the equivalent of following Robin Williams in his prime with a prop comedy act, sans props. It’s impossible. It simply cannot be done well and, in the case of the Republicans in this political climate, it simply cannot be as effective as we need. Furthermore, with master orator Barack Hussein Obama giving speeches filled with soaring, perfectly delivered rhetoric to joint sessions of Congress for the next three years, the Republicans simply must get it right. This is one of few times each year where many people who normally prefer Sportscenter to Special Report actually tune in and pay attention; such an occasion cannot be wasted.
Change must come to the Republican response. The days of parading the future of our party out into such an impossible situation and essentially throwing him or her to the lions must end. Tonight was no way to introduce Bobby Jindal to the masses, at least not without creating some sort of dynamism from an inherently static, stiff environment.
Perhaps it can be something simple, such as using text graphics to better break up and organize the substance of the response. Every night in the opening minutes of The O’Reilly Factor, producers at Fox News Channel manage to display Bill O’Reilly’s words on the screen as he says them. Personally, I find it to be annoying, but if such a mechanism had been employed last night in order to effectively and clearly structure the speech and lay out bullet points, the response would likely have been perceived in a different manner. Jindal’s speech reads a whole lot better than it was delivered — I could see at least five or six distinct places where a simple visual heading could have made a world of difference.
Or, perhaps the necessary change could be something a little more non-traditional, such as the use of a panel of solid conservatives rather than a solitary, unfortunate soul, each taking one of the aforementioned headings and running with it. If, for example, I were running the show, it would go something like this:
First, pick a few people from a crowd of solid conservatives including Jindal, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mark Sanford, Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, and others. Sure, I’d love for Mike Huckabee or any number of congressmen and senators such as Jim DeMint, Jon Thune, Walter Jones or Michele Bachmann to be there, but Huckabee has his media gig and the rest would be tied up at the Capitol.
Third, pick one person in particular to read an opening statement. Jindal’s opening tonight was nice, talking about the historical implications and such — so use it and, in this case, when Jindal would finish with his opener, he might turn to Romney and say, “gee whiz, Mitt, you’re pretty in tune with Wall Street and our economy, did anything from the president’s speech jump out at you tonight?”
Next, on cue, have each person in the group run down something on the list, being sure to articulate how conservatism demands that things be done differently, how history shows that the conservative response traditionally works better, and how a personal anecdote might punctuate the point being made. When that person is done, they hand it off: “Gosh, Sarah, you’re a mom of five, did anything Obama said about education perk your ears up?” Lather, rinse, and repeat with each Republican.
Finally, after each person picks something out of the president’s speech two or three times, the moderator could close with an anecdote, with a reiteration of the merits of conservative principles in general, and with the traditional, heart-felt blessing.
I know it’s not perfect. I’m not a professional spin-artist. I’m not a Washington insider. However, I am an American, and an American with a gnat-like attention span at that. Considering how much as I try to keep in tune with the goings-on in our nation’s capital, if I was underwhelmed by Gov. Jindal’s response last night, I cannot imagine that the American Idol crowd stuck with it for very long.
Involving a number of different people with different styles would add a much needed element of dynamism. Much in the same way that a sitcom without a laugh track may not make the average viewer laugh as often, a political speech without the feedback of applause or boos or even notable silence may leave the viewer disengaged. Provide other people and other perspectives at that kitchen table, provide multiple cameras with multiple shots and multiple angles, and even if each person’s remarks are rehearsed down to each dotted “i” and crossed “t,” it would provide television viewers with reactions which simply cannot be captured in the tired format we saw employed last night in Baton Rouge.
Point being, what we’ve got going now simply is not working, and the GOP must adapt in order to be able to convey, to the American people, the merits of conservatism as a whole. Bobby Jindal was absolutely flayed last night; part of it was his own doing, of course, but much of it was a result of the format-related constraints placed upon whichever unfortunate soul is asked to deliver the response.
Consider what was written on these pages on November 8, 2008, only four days after the presidential election:
We need to get younger. We need to get sleeker. We need to get faster, smoother, more efficient. We need to get quicker, smarter, more punishing, and less apt to retreat into our corner.
We need to stick to conservative principles, package those principles and sell them to the American public. It starts with the tenets of fiscal conservatism, stressing the end of big government, of higher taxes, of growth-stifling regulation. Create jobs by fostering economic growth, protect wealth by reducing taxes. Let America know that government has no business in the auto business, in our hospitals, in our homes. Talk to your kids, to your neighbors, to your co-workers, to people you meet in the supermarket. Challenge them to footraces, if necessary.
Regardless, the Ward Cleaver perception of conservatism must be replaced by concrete, practically-applicable examples of situations and institutions where conservative principles work. States and municipalities must lead the way, the private sector must do their job as well. The new media must do the job that the old media will not, and consistently report on the successes of conservatism alongside the failures of the Obama administration.
Republican Party leadership in Washington, D.C. must be gutted as well. Over the past two dozen years, we’ve seen that conservative republicans win elections, while moderate republicans do not. The tenure of the big government, spend-happy wing of the GOP must end. Young, forceful, vibrant leaders in the conservative movement must be supported and given exposure. Jindal. Palin. Ryan. Cantor. Sanford. DeMint. Huckabee. Romney. Bachman. Pence. When the dust settles in the weeks and months following Tuesday’s election, we’re going to see signs of one of two things from our party — either we’ll see the down-in-the-mouth, lazy fighter who refuses to adhere to the basic principles of hard work and sacrifice, or a lean, mean, fighting machine ready to take down the reigning champion in 2012. If it’s the former, we’re doomed; if it’s the latter, we’ll surely win.
If the Republican party continues to do the same things, continues to proceed with business as usual, continues to be encumbered by the same formats and templates and processes, we will not stand a chance to compete with Barack Obama’s well-oiled political machine in 2012, possibly regardless of the state of our economy and nation. We must change. We must adapt. And we must force the breaking down of the barriers set forth by traditional standards for and means of communication.
Last night’s underwhelming performance by a true star of the conservative movement provided perhaps the clearest possible example of everything I’ve been trying to articulate since the moment the networks called the election for Barack Obama. Smoother, sleeker, more media-savvy, more tech-savvy, more able to relate with younger voters, with voters riddled with ADD, with people who honestly would understand the merits of conservatism if they were presented with the principles in an interesting, engaging and effective manner. Last night could not have provided a more crystal clear picture of what must be done by the Republican party not only to prosper, but to merely survive.
So, let’s get to it, already. And next time, when the country gets re-introduced to Bobby Jindal–hopefully alongside some other bright spots on the right–let’s make sure we provide him with the proper tools to bring forth his potential, display his command, and knock their socks off.