The Slatest

Joni Ernst’s SOTU Rebuttal Wasn’t One

Sen. Joni Ernst spoke after the president, but her response was anything but a rebuttal.

Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images

Republican leaders were so excited to have Joni Ernst deliver the official GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union this year that, according to Politico, they reached out to her in December, even before she was sworn into office. Judging by the address she delivered Tuesday night, Ernst and her team went ahead and wrote the bulk of her remarks right there on the spot.

“Rather than respond to a speech,” the first-term Iowa senator told viewers who had stuck around hoping to hear her do exactly that, “I’d like to talk about your priorities. I’d like to have a conversation about the new Republican Congress you just elected, and how we plan to make Washington focus on your concerns again.”

Ernst lived up to that first promise—she kept her distance from the myriad proposals that the president had just gone to great lengths to lay out on the other side of the Capitol. But she came up short on the second one. She offered few specifics when it came to what congressional Republicans have planned for the next two years, even when it came to those issues her fellow conservative lawmakers have touted at nearly every turn. Most notably, missing completely from Ernst’s English-language remarks was any mention whatsoever of the GOP’s promise to block the president’s executive immigration reforms. (Meanwhile, the Spanish-language version of the GOP rebuttal, delivered by Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, asked Obama to work with Republicans to “create permanent solutions for our immigration system, to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration, and strengthen our economy.”)

With the exception of a quick plug for the GOP’s efforts to fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline—or “the Keystone jobs bill” as she called it—the lion’s share of legislative goals Ernst name-dropped were either anodyne proposals designed to make almost everyone nod along in agreement (“support our exceptional military and its mission”) or conservative red meat that was wrapped carefully in coded language (“we’ll defend life, because protecting our most vulnerable is an important measure of any society”).

What Ernst’s response lacked in policy, though, she made up for with what she does best: personal politics. Her speech was a highlight reel of the type of folksy anecdotes that she perfected on the campaign trail this past summer. Her time working “the morning biscuit line at Hardees”? The fact that she grew up with “only one good pair of shoes”? Her time in the military? Check, check, and check—now with camo heels. The only thing missing was a nod to the hog castration-themed campaign ad that first made her a star last spring. (Don’t worry, the CNN commentators mentioned it for her.)

To grade Ernst’s response by its policy proposals, it landed somewhere between an F and an Incomplete. But in terms of sheer politics, the Iowa Republican deserves something a few notches higher on the curve. It was her biography that helped her handily win her Iowa seat, after all. And if there was a point to her rebuttal, that was it. As my colleague John Dickerson explained, this year’s SOTU pitted the momentum the GOP captured this past November against the momentum the White House is claiming now that the economy appears to be rebounding. Given that, then, it’s not hard to figure out why Republican leaders would rather focus on the former and ignore the latter, and why they would choose Ernst, who never talked much policy in her campaign, to deliver the message.

See more of Slate’s State of the Union coverage.