When President Obama concluded his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, viewers didn’t get to watch a single Republican response — they got to watch at least four.
There was Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers sitting on a couch as she delivered her party’s official response; her counterpart, Rep. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, giving a similar speech in Spanish; Sen. Mike Lee, who was tapped by the Tea Party Express to represent the conservative movement; and libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, who recorded his own response and posted it to YouTube.
The slew of official — and official-looking — Republican responses came amid the traditional frenzy of camera-mugging and late-night statements blasted out to reporters that marks every State of the Union address. Rep. Paul Ryan was one of several high-profile conservatives to give lengthy interviews to Fox News Tuesday night, while Sen. Ted Cruz wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled, “The Imperial Presidency of Barack Obama,” and was seen hurrying from one television hit to the next in the hours following the speech.
In the run-up to Tuesday night, many political observers wondered whether the pile of Republican responses was yet another sign that the GOP had descended into irreparable division — proof that wilderness-wandering conservatives were unable to agree on a single vision for the country.
But while the various post-SOTU speeches and interviews certainly pointed to a fractured party, there was little evidence of a large-scale policy debate driving wedges between the Republicans competing for airtime. Instead, they suggested a more ordinary and time-honored dynamic was at work: self-promotion at the expense of partisan unity.
Not long ago, the party out of power would select one or two of its stars to deliver a brief response to the president’s State of the Union address, and the rest of the party would dutifully spend the next day gushing about how great said stars’ remarks were. In McMorris Rodgers, GOP officials found the ideal speaker for the current political moment — a workmanlike congresswoman with a sympathetic personal story who could hopefully soften the party’s image. (She is the first woman to deliver a Republican SOTU response since 1995.)
But the GOP’s power has become so decentralized — a phenomenon exacerbated by the internet and the media culture it has created — that few Republicans in Washington feel compelled anymore to let party bigwigs decide who gets to be the star of the evening. Lee, for example, has spent the past several months positioning himself as the intellectual leader of a certain brand of reform conservatism, and he seized the opportunity to meld that reputation with the Tea Party brand Tuesday night. Paul, meanwhile, had some success appointing himself Republican spokesman during the debate over Syria last fall, and he had nothing to lose by making another go at it.
Lee has called for a “Great Debate” to determine the future of the Republican Party’s agenda. And to be sure, there are real policy differences that define the various warring factions within the party. But Tuesday night’s performances weren’t about ideological conviction; they were about publicity.