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The Confused, Divided Republican Response to the State of the Union

While conservatives clearly agree that they don't like Barack Obama, they don't seem to have found a consensus on much of anything else.
Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst delivers her party's response to Obama's State of the Union address.

It's not an exaggeration to say that giving the opposing party's response to the president's State of the Union address is one of the worst jobs in American politics. For one thing, it's cursed—it's been a fast track to ridicule and irrelevance for seven of the last eight politicians selected to take it on. And in an age where any no-name congressman can shoot a YouTube video in his office bathroom, the idea of an "official" party response has become redundant, an antiquated network television relic not unlike the State of the Union itself.


And yet, every time President Obama gives his annual speech, Republicans jump at the chance to get in on the action. In addition to the usual flood of Tweets and cable news hits, the GOP gave no less than five responses to the State of the Union Tuesday night, each with its own distinct—if not always coherent—attack on the president's new policy proposals. The result was a weird jumble of mixed signals that underscores the deep fault lines that continue to divide the Republican Party. While conservatives clearly agree they don't like Obama or his proposals, they don't seem to agree on much of anything else.

Let's start with the "official" party response, delivered by newly-elected Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who became an instant conservative star last year with a campaign ad about how she "grew up castrating hogs." Decked out in some curious camo heels, Ernst once again proved her knack for startling personal anecdotes, weaving a folksy tale about her impoverished heartland girlhood. "You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes," she explained, "so on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet."

But while the tidbit was meant to illustrate Ernst's personal understanding of the "middle-class economy"—the main theme of Obama's proposals—the rest of her response offered little indication about what alternative Republicans were offering. Instead, she devolved into the usual Republican talking points about the Keystone pipeline and Obamacare that, regardless how you feel about those issues, had little connection to anything the president said Tuesday night.


Where things really got interesting, though, was with the Spanish-language version of Ernst's address, delivered by Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo. In the past, the GOP's Spanish State of the Union responses have mostly been a direct translation of whatever was said in English, but this year, Curbelo decided to put his own spin on things. Most notably, he casually slipped in that Republicans in Congress would "work with Obama" on immigration reform—a position that likely came a surprise to Ernst, who falls firmly in the anti-amnesty, English-as-a-national-language wing of the GOP.

Curbelo insists that he didn't go rogue, telling the Washington Post that GOP leaders saw a draft of his remarks before he went on air. And his position couldn't have come as a surprise to anyone—Curbelo has repeatedly, often publicly, broken with his party on immigration issues. Just last week, he was one of just seven House Republicans who voted against an amendment to defund Obama's executive actions on immigration. It's not clear how Republicans thought this would play out when they picked Ernst and Curbelo to deliver this year's official responses, but the fact that these two were chosen as the "new faces" of the party explains why the party is having such a hard time figuring out where it stands.

Add Rand Paul into the mix and things really start to get weird. The

all-but-declared 2016 presidential candidate


delivered his own State of the Union response via YouTube and took on Obama a little more directly than his party-sanctioned counterparts. He attacked the president's rosy economic message with an ominous opening: "Good evening. I wish I had better news for you, but all is not well in America. America is adrift. Something is clearly wrong." Blaming Democrats for the growing income inequality gap, Paul slammed Obama's new tax plan, suggesting instead that "we should do the opposite" and cut everyone's taxes, and "cut spending at the same time." And Paul didn't stop there, taking a kitchen-sink approach that included calls for a constitutional balanced budget amendment and term limits, and lines about Ferguson and NSA surveillance. And in an pointed break from his party's foreign policy hawks, he demanded an audit of the Pentagon and an end to "perpetual military intervention."

Not to be outdone, Senator Ted Cruz, one of Paul's likely 2016 opponents, released his own video response, although in his haste to get after Obama, his staff accidentally posted an outtake to YouTube of the senator screwing up.

And finally, in another sign of the slow death of the Tea Party, the response from that wing of the GOP was delivered by the relatively unknown Florida Congressman Curt Clawson, who spent most of the speech comparing the country to his college basketball team.

Taken together, it was a pretty clear sign that despite their recent victories, Republicans still have a long way to go to resolve their intra-party conflicts. Apart from the obvious divisions on issues like immigration reform and foreign policy, they still have yet to articulate a message on where the country should go from here. While each of the Republicans who spoke Tuesday night acknowledged that income inequality is an issue that continues to hurt Americans, no one seems to have come up with a real way for conservatives to address the issue.