Americans may little note nor long remember what Bob McDonnell said Tuesday night. But they just might recall how well he looked in giving the GOP response to the State of the Union address. The newly inaugurated Virginia governor recited what might be described as Republican elevator music – conservative clichés delivered in a soothing voice: "Top-down, one-size-fits-all decision-making should not replace the personal choices of free people in a free market . . . No government program can ever replace the actions of caring Americans freely choosing to help one another."
Personifying the out-of-power party on State of the Union night is never about rhetoric – and it was inevitable that McDonnell had to resort to one-size-fits-all prose. Where Barack Obama dominated the TV screens for 70 minutes, McDonnell only took 10 minutes, awkwardly announcing at the beginning of his speech from the Virginia capitol that his twin 18-year-old sons were "giving me exactly 10 minutes before they leave to watch 'SportsCenter.' "
Even without the flickering attention spans of the McDonnell twins, the networks would never have allocated more time to an obligatory political ritual that is always the anti-climax of the State of the Union.
But the bigger constraint was that McDonnell and his speechwriters were in the awkward position of having to fantasize about the address that Obama might have given and then having to craft a response long before they have seen the presidential text. As a result, McDonnell attacked the Obama administration for "hindering nuclear-energy expansion" when just minutes earlier the president had called for a "new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants."
Displaying the kind of resilience that has made America great, Republican imagemakers learned an enduring lesson from the embarrassing reviews that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal received when he offered the GOP rebuttal to Obama's first speech to Congress last February. Part of the problem was atmospherics, as Jindal looked strangely insignificant standing alone in a hallway of the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge. So this time around, the Republicans responded to Obama's appearance in the House chamber in Washington by putting McDonnell in the House chamber in Richmond.
It was a clever gimmick that is apt to be as often emulated as the Ronald Reagan gambit of putting heroic citizens in the balcony next to the first lady. Of course, the settings were not equivalent – the Republican version looked like a movie that tried to cut costs in replicating a presidential address to Congress. After 70 minutes of seeing Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi nodding and clapping on cue behind Obama, it was strange to see four unknown Virginians (white, black, and Asian-American) nodding and clapping on cue behind McDonnell. But compared to the amateur home-video quality of Jindal staring blankly into the camera, this was a Cecil B. DeMille production.
In recorded human history, no votes have ever been swayed by the loyal opposition's version of the State of the Union address. But lasting reputations have often been made by a politician's first big-time TV performance. Recall, if you will, a certain obscure Illinois Senate candidate giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention.
Bob McDonnell – already on the GOP fast track
after his landslide Virginia gubernatorial victory – succeeded with a well-delivered and well-choreographed bland-is-better speech. It will be nearly impossible for Jon Stewart and "Saturday Night Live" to find anything to parody in McDonnell's embodiment of non-threatening Republicanism.
While no one is rushing to Iowa to fan the flames of a "McDonnell in 2012" brush fire, it is a safe prediction that the Virginia governor's gaffe-free performance Wednesday night guarantees future star turns in the national Republican spotlight.