The GOP Dials Down the Drama

Rep. McMorris Rodgers' State of the Union response wasn't a game-changer, but it's a start.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, sits on a couch as she prepares for her response to President Barack Obama State of the Union address Jan. 28, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, prepares for her response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.

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Three weeks ago, I argued that if politicians want to connect with the American people over this coming election cycle, they will need to dial down the drama. They will need to "present themselves as hard-working, heartfelt truth-tellers" and take "lots of turtle steps."

Interestingly, last night, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., speaking for the Republicans in her response to the president's State of the Union address, got the message. Although her speech was light on policy substance and long on biographical details and partisan platitudes, she, like Nebraska's senate candidate Ben Sasse, was working hard to put "a kinder and gentler" face on the Republican Party.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

For many political junkies (like me), it was a terribly dissatisfying performance (but then, so was the president's "small ball" speech). But it wasn't designed to win plaudits from pundits or history buffs. Her response was addressed to the record-high number of people in our country who are so disgusted by politics that they can't even bring themselves to declare a party affiliation -- all 42 percent of them. It was an attempt to reach out and say, "No, really, I get it. My life is like yours. I understand what's going on and why it's so hard. I, along with my party, the Republicans, want to make things better. We have learned from our past mistakes. We believe we can fix our economy and reenergize our nation. Please try to extend your trust once again, and [long pause] please when you go to the polls in November, pull the lever for the GOP."

Understood from this perspective, McMorris Rodgers was impressive. Sitting on a sofa, sharing her personal story and smiling all the while, she was reassuring and optimistic. Most important, given the party's recent experience with opposition responses, she made no gaffes. Of course, the likelihood is that her speech will quickly be forgotten, but sometimes in politics, as in sports, not giving up points is as important as scoring them.

For as I have previously explained, last fall's back-to-back media spectacles involving the government shutdown and the rocky roll-out of the Affordable Care Act not only turned off the public, but also made them more skeptical of that special breed of purportedly patriotic hucksters otherwise known as politicians. In having showcased the twin political evils of partisan intransigence and federal incompetence, elected officials must now play defense.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

All incumbents and both parties must look to protect and nurture what little reservoir of good will currently exists among Americans for politicians. A tall order, no doubt.

But here's the thing: the speech McMorris Rodgers gave last night was the rhetorical equivalent of the December budget deal. By itself, it's not much, but as part of a cumulative effort, it well may amount to something. Looks like it'll be the year of small ball -- on both sides.