Ryan To Give GOP Response To State Of The Union

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has been chosen to counter President Obama's State of the Union message Tuesday night. Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Obama gives his State of the Union address tomorrow night, and we've come to expect certain traditions. It will likely run long, one party will clap its hands raw, the other party will recruit an up-and-coming politician to give the rebuttal. And this year, that man is Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.

NPR's Robert Smith reports that if history is a guide, Ryan is in for a tough night.

ROBERT SMITH: No rock band would even consider going on stage after the Rolling Stones just finished their set, and yet every year, some young political star agrees to have the president of the United States as his or her opening act.

Think about it. The State of the Union, all that ceremony and gravitas, all that cheering, then just as the audience is filing out...

Gov. BOBBY JINDAL (Governor, Louisiana): Good evening and happy Mardi Gras. I'm Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana.

SMITH: And ten excruciating minutes later, someone who is being talked about as a future president is being compared to Kenneth, the page from "30 Rock."

(Soundbite of show, "30 Rock")

Mr. JACK McBRAYER (As Kenneth Parcell): I just want to say, I have been reading all the Internet hoo-ha about whether or not I sound like Governor Jindal.

Unidentified Man: That sounded just like him.

SMITH: This year the gutsy rebuttal giver is Congressman Paul Ryan. He's the man Republicans are counting on to keep millions of viewers from turning the channel to "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." To his credit, Ryan has proven that he can tussle with the president.

Rep. PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): I serve as a ranking member of the budget committee, so I want to talk a little budget if you don't mind.

SMITH: Last year when President Obama visited a Republican congressional retreat, Ryan stood up.

Rep. RYAN: The discretionary spending, the bills that Congress has signed -that you signed into law, that has increased 84 percent.

President BARACK OBAMA: We'll have a - we'll have a longer debate on the budget numbers then.

SMITH: As you might be able to tell, Paul Ryan is one of the Republicans' biggest budget geeks. He's championed a plan to cut spending on Social Security and other entitlements. But he also says he wants to make deficit reductions sexy for the iPod generation.

Kenneth Mayer is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. He's watched Ryan's political career, and he says the congressman is a natural pick to give the response.

Mr. KENNETH MAYER (Professor, University of Wisconsin): He's young, he's substantive, he's very smart, and I think for the Republicans, he is the face that they would like to put on their agenda for the next two years.

SMITH: Ah, but how many young, smart politicians have ended up with egg on that pretty face after their State of the Union response? The last politician to parlay a rebuttal into a national political career was Governor Bill Clinton in 1985.

President BILL CLINTON: We have just heard the president of the United States address our nation, and by the way, Mr. President, happy birthday tonight. Our objective tonight is not to disagree with our president and his party, though our differences are many.

SMITH: But in the last 25 years, it's been more of a political curse than an honor. Usually the speech is boring and forgettable. That's the best case scenario. The worst is that you'll be mocked like Bobby Jindal or Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. His Democratic response to George Bush's State of the Union featured a cheesy fireplace and a delivery suitable for first graders.

Gov. TIM KAINE (Democratic, Virginia): Now, no parent makes their child pay the mortgage bill. Why should we allow this administration to pass down the bill for its reckless spending to our children and grandchildren?

SMITH: So why does a smart man like Congressman Paul Ryan even say yes to such a cursed invitation? Poli-Sci professor Kenneth Mayer has a theory.

Mr. KENNETH MAYER: Expectations are so low that anything that isn't an utter disaster will count as a smashing success.

SMITH: And even if he screws up, Mayer says that not that many viewers stick around to watch it. The response to the State of the Union is mostly for party diehards, journalists, and of course, these days, comedians.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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