Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about the State of the Union and the state of the GOP. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Margaret: However you feel about the State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama feels great. He's at Costco (yes, I also love buying 36 rolls of paper towels) and in a great mood. He's adjusted. Should a president have lowered expectations? It's one way to stay sane and cheerful, which is one job of a president. He gave a midnight-basketball-and-school-uniform speech, those very useful but small ideas speeches that characterized Bill Clinton's later years. What's Obama to do? It's been clear from the start (our goal is to make him a "one-term president") that Republicans in Congress were going to block his agenda. And so they have. The State of the Union speech is best for its moments: the shout out to John Boehner (the son of a barkeep) and himself (the son of a single mother). It's amazing. The jab at Republicans for fruitlessly casting the same vote 40 times to defund Obamacare. And Cory Remsburg. The gallery is a cliche but cliches often work. It was pageantry but the kind of pageantry we need. The speech's best cliche and new bumper sticker slogan: Give America a raise.
Ramesh: The trouble is that the president doesn't have much to offer but pageantry. If you are dismayed by the slow pace of this recovery, or worried about how Obamacare is going to work, there wasn't much in this speech to allay your concerns. There were a lot of microscopic political wins for the president's team in the speech, to be sure, generally based on misleading stats. (Obama signed several of those "Obamacare repeal bills" into law.) But there's nothing here to make the Democrats' political situation sunnier. I wrote this morning at Bloomberg that red-state Democrats would not find any succor in the address. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska confirmed my theory after the speech by saying that he didn't especially want to campaign with Obama but would be happy to show him around the state to show him how his policies were hurting it.
Margaret: Red state Democrats are a skittish bunch. Will you take a bet on Begich? He wins easily, but you don't want Obama coming to Palin country. How about all those responses to the State of the Union? Can't they even agree on that? I love Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers but she gave a campaign speech about herself, and on a couch. Was that the first couch-delivered response ever? Then there were the rebuttals by the Tea Party Express (lose the dark brown backdrop) and Senator Rand Paul, responding on behalf of Senator Rand Paul. I can't wait for the presidential primaries. The sunniness of the president reflects the improving conditions, which Republicans have to ignore, even though the improvements mostly benefit Republicans: The market is up 2,000 points in the last year; unemployment is down by over a point and consumer confidence is way, way up, from the 50s, during the recession, to the 80s. Those confident people don't show up in news stories or on cable. You'll be able to wallow in Republican gloom at their retreat, you lucky guy. Could you get me invited? I could do as well as speaker Simon Sinek, whose Twitter biography simply says, “To run & jump & laugh & cry & love & hope & imagine…." I can do all those things. Are you expected to laugh and cry?
Ramesh: I might laugh and cry, but probably only when it's least appropriate. Nobody ever succeeds at State of the Union responses, Republican or Democrat, and given the inherent difficulty of the thing I thought McMorris Rodgers did quite well. The trend toward multiple responses lowers the stakes on each one, and reflects the reality that a party out of the White House has no true leader. Republicans may as well let a hundred flowers bloom, even if nobody is watching them. Republicans will probably hope that nobody is watching some of them, such as Representative Michael Grimm. Did you catch him threatening to throw a reporter off a balcony for trying to ask him a question he knew he wasn't going to like? Pretty thuggish behavior, if we're still allowed to use that word.
Margaret: In questioning the reporters' manhood, Grimm said he would break him "in half. Like a boy." I laughed, I cried. Have fun with your homeboys and don't ask questions that could get you thrown off the balcony.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review.)