GOP, Tea Party Offer Response To State Of The Union

After President Obama gave his State of the Union speech, it was Republicans' turn. Their official rebuttal was given by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. But minutes later, a group representing the Tea Party offered its own response from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the two of them sat together last night at President Obama's State of the Union Speech. After that speech, it was the turn of the Republicans. Their official rebuttal was given by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. But minutes later, a group representing the Tea Party offered its own response, from Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

As NPR's Robert Smith reports, Ryan and Bachmann had the same message, but different styles.

ROBERT SMITH: Michele Bachmann's plan was to look directly into the camera and tell America...

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): The Tea Party is a dynamic force for good in our national conversation.

SMITH: The problem was, she was looking into the wrong camera. So for a national audience watching on CNN, the conservative seemed to be addressing someone else, somewhere vaguely offstage.

Rep. BACHMANN: And it's an honor for me to speak with you.

SMITH: If not to actually look you in the eye. It was confusing and distracting, much like the whole concept of the dueling rebuttals.

For the last few days, the concept has raised all these questions: Is there a split among conservatives? Was this another warning shot by the Tea Party across the bow of the Republican ship? Or was it a plot by the mainstream media to divide conservatives?

In the end, it was none of the above. It was a simple message - cut the size of government - delivered in two radically different performances. Paul Ryan chairs the House Budget Committee, and he gave his response in an empty conference room. He was careful to offer some conditional support for the president.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): I assure you that we want to work with the president to restrain federal spending.

SMITH: And Ryan even conceded that the president has been dealt a tough hand with the economy. But in a calm, methodical fashion, Ryan laid out how Republicans feel that the president had made matters worse - through his new healthcare law, by hiking discretionary spending. But Ryan never made it personal.

Rep. RYAN: Americans are skeptical of both political parties, and that skepticism is justified, especially when it comes to spending. So hold all of us accountable.

SMITH: A few minutes later, it was time for the Tea Party response. Michele Bachmann had no trouble laying all of the worries of the world at the feet of the president.

Rep. BACHMANN: For two years, President Obama made promises just like the ones we heard him make this evening. Yet still we have high unemployment, devalued housing prices, and the cost of gasoline is skyrocketing.

SMITH: Even with the strange off-camera gaze, Bachmann had 10 times the energy of Ryan. She waved her hands and pointed at charts and at a photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Whereas Ryan referred to the president's healthcare law, Bachmann called it...

Rep. BACHMANN: ObamaCare.

SMITH: It was almost as if Bachmann was translating the official Republican response into Tea Party-ese, which was kind of the point. The leaders of the Tea Party Express, who sponsored the speech, say they have no problem with Ryan or the Republican message. They just wanted to do something for their own members online, to show their independence.

In fact, Bachmann was staring off to the side into the Webcam that fed to the Tea Party site, instead of the TV camera. So for the conservative faithful, at least, she was looking right at them.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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