Republican freelancers on stage for rebuttal to Obama address

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WASHINGTON -- The protocol is staid and formulaic. The president addresses Congress for the State of the Union, then the opposition party's designee follows with a rebuttal.

The choreography is tight, predictable and usually forgettable.

Not this year. The once careful attempt at stagecraft, fashioned under the close watch of party chiefs to be as uniform and on message as possible, has given way to political free agency.

The shift speaks volumes about politics today: the value placed on the individual brand over the larger organization, and the way social media and technology have torn down barriers to fame and influence.

For example, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., plans to spend part of Tuesday in a television studio off Capitol Hill recording his own unsanctioned rebuttal to President Barack Obama's address that night. His staff plans to blast the video to news outlets around the world, and to the hundreds of thousands of people the senator reaches online through Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will have top billing for the newest -- and to some Republicans the most unwelcome -- post-State of the Union event, the official Tea Party response.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, not content to wait until Tuesday, got rolling last week when he released a statement in which he demanded that Mr. Obama answer accusations on a variety of issues, including National Security Agency surveillance and the Affordable Care Act. He then followed up with a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for a special prosecutor to look into accusations of political persecution by the Internal Revenue Service.

Competing with them for the soapbox will be Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, who is to deliver the party's official response.

"There is no clear leadership in the Republican Party right now, no clear direction or message, and no way to enforce discipline," said Mark McKinnon, a veteran Republican strategist who has become an outspoken critic of his party. "And because there's a vacuum, and no shortage of cameras, there are plenty of actors happy to audition."

The Republican leadership in Congress is trying not to cede control to its freelance responders. In an effort led by Ms. McMorris Rodgers, members shuffling out of the House chamber after Mr. Obama's address will be steered toward one of several rapid-response booths, which will be festooned with a Republican slogan and stocked with iPads and other devices to allow them to record 6-second videos through Vine.

Republican officials said members were being encouraged to focus on pushing back on Democratic claims that the Republican-controlled House has offered little of an agenda of its own other than to oppose the president.

But amid all the jockeying for who can have the best, loudest and most effective retort Tuesday, many Republicans and Democrats who have been through this before are asking, Why bother? The response is a risky endeavor, often marred by inelegance and blunder.

"There's never been a good one," said John Feehery, who was an aide to Dennis Hastert, a Republican and a former House speaker. "There's this element of getting too close to the sun. They think they're hot stuff, and their hot stuff gets melted in the glare of the lights. It's very risky."

Response speeches, whether to the State of the Union or any other major presidential address, are almost always canned, with most of the text written before the opposing party has had a chance to read or hear the president's remarks.

For those who agree to give the speech after the State of the Union address, it can be a career kiss of death, the political world's equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover curse. Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota spoke for the Democrats in 2004, after President George W. Bush, and lost his seat nine months later. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas delivered the Republican response in 1996 only to lose that year's presidential race to Bill Clinton.

The practice of answering a president's State of the Union as the opposition party does today on broadcast television began in 1982, when Democrats produced a documentary-style program with ordinary citizens and members of Congress sounding off on the Reagan presidency. They stuck to this format for a few years, and one year featured a young, telegenic and little-known governor from Arkansas -- Mr. Clinton.

But back then there was no Twitter, no Vine and no Tea Party.

"The message development for the party and on Capitol Hill has been flipped," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. "It used to be that congressional leadership could develop the broad outline of the party's message, and everyone else could echo it. We're no longer in a place where members are echoing leadership. They're competing with leadership."


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