Newly-elected U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) gave a rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday that sounded more like a primary campaign video than an attempt to refute the president's agenda and platform for the coming year.
Ernst could have taken the time to address any number of the president's ideas, including education, foreign policy on Iran, equal pay for women, new child tax credits, or Obamacare success stories. Instead, this is how she opened her "rebuttal":
Tonight, though, rather than respond to a speech--I'd like to talk about your priorities. I'd like to have a conversation about the new Republican Congress you just elected and how we plan to make Washington focus on your concerns again."
Rather than doing the job she was selected to do (which was to give the Republican response to the State of the Union), she discussed her early childhood in Iowa, including an anecdote about how her mother used to make her wear bread sacks on her shoes to protect the only pair of shoes she had when it rained.Ernst definitely returned to the folksy discussions that got her elected, like her extremely popular campaign story about how she grew up castrating hogs. She argued that this experience made her uniquely suited for going to Washington and
This was reminiscent of Sarah Palin's debate with Joe Biden, where she refused to debate the issues selected, but instead stuck to her pre-scripted anecdotes, winks at the camera, and political punchlines.
Just like Palin's mistake, it's all about venue. When at a debate, you debate your opponent; when given the opportunity to offer a rebuttal, you challenge your opponent's ideas.
"Bread-sack empathy" is unlikely to become the new face of the Republican-dominated 114th Congress; how the issues are handled in a bitterly entrenched Congress will be the defining characteristic.
Personal anecdotes, smiling for the camera, or focusing on pet issues might win elections, but it makes for really poor governance.
The Keystone XL
Once Ernst finally got around to discussing political issues, she put an inordinate focus on the Keystone XL pipeline, a measure that President Obama promised to veto if passed.
Falling oil prices bringing into question the project's viability, a promised veto, and the continued squabbling over trying to turn the Keystone XL into a "jobs program" have made this line of politicking a colossal waste of time.
Congressional passage of the Keystone XL measure is almost a foregone conclusion, but then again, so is the president's veto. Ernst wasted valuable media time, time that could have been used to address the issues presented in the State of the Union.
A Pat on the Back Isn't What Congress Needs
As the old saying goes, Ernst about broke her own arm giving herself and the new Republican-dominated Congress a pat on the back.The next two years of American politics will be an exercise in political jockeying, where each party's moves will be checked, stalled, or trivialized by the other side. Very little of either party's agenda is likely to succeed.
Congress doesn't need a pat on the back; they need a wake-up call about what it means to be public servants.
Therein lies the problem with Ernst's "rebuttal." When a time-honored political institution like the opposing party's rebuttal to the SOTU is turned into a personal political advertisement and message of self-congratulatory rhetoric, the entire political process has become part of the problem.
Party rising-stars are often given the opportunity to present the SOTU rebuttal, and a solid performance can launch their career to new heights or derail it before it even starts.
Ernst had one job to do, and she failed both her party and the American people by refusing to address and refute the actual issues President Obama presented.
Photo Source: AP