As I noted in my exhaustive "State of the Union" trivia roundup, the tradition of a responding speech has evolved from a group of opposition party leaders giving a unified response to the president to a group of individuals giving numerous uncoordinated responses. If, like my bloleague Peter Fenn, you don't like this trend, get used to it – it only figures to get worse.
For the fourth year running there will not only be an official GOP response (from Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers) but also an "official" – as official as is possible for a movement without a single formal organization – tea party response (from Utah Sen. Mike Lee), not to mention an official Rand Paul response (from, you guessed it, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul).
The notion of an official response is a relatively recent feature of the annual State of the Union address. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson decided to move the speech from the afternoon to prime time in order to maximize viewership. Republican leaders saw the wisdom of the idea and the following year asked for time to respond. So after Johnson spoke in 1966, House GOP Leader Gerald Ford and Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen gave the first ever rebuttal. Right through the 1980s the response was usually delivered by at least a pair of opposition party leaders, and in many cases a lot more than that. A dozen Democrats, including then-Sen. Joe Biden, responded to Ronald Reagan in 1984, for example. But the unifying theme was, well, unity. If there were many voices, they were party-sanctioned and speaking off of one script.
But that was so 20th century. Thanks to the wonders of the information revolution, any shmoe with a webcam can give their very own response – and if they have a fancy title, like senator, they might even get the media to pay attention to them.
Look at it this way: Politicians have been responding to the State of the Union address for years and years; they used to do it with press releases and, in some cases, appearances in the congressional spin room after the speech. In a sense, Rand Paul is trailblazing with his individual response, but in a sense he's just putting out a very stylized, epically pompous video press release.
As the estimable Alex Pareene writes at Salon:
But what if the responder wasn't hemmed in by the requirement that they represent their entire party, and appeal to as broad an audience as possible? What if the response could be used purely for naked self-promotion, and narrowcast solely to the true believers? Then the response morphs from a mostly thankless burden to a canny campaigning and fundraising opportunity.
Rand Paul's response won't be on the networks, because Rand Paul's audience isn't everyone, and his intention isn't necessarily to persuade the median voter. … [A] YouTube response sent directly to people who already support Paul is mainly about energizing and expanding his list.
This year it's Paul. Come January 2015, does anyone doubt that he'll be joined by other 2016 wannabes anxious to show their supporters that they're personally standing up to the tyrant Obama? Pareene's right that it's about fundraising and list-building. But in a sense it's also a stature-grab – trying to assume "national leader" gravitas by playing a role traditionally reserved for one. How about January 2016 – how many GOP responses can we expect then?