Although it was officially an address to Congress, President Biden's recent State of the Union speech is being described as a roadmap for his 2024 campaign. With a heavy emphasis on "finishing the job" and a "blue collar blueprint for rebuilding America," Biden, writes the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman, "acknowledged rhetorically what Democrats have been preparing for two years: a fierce campaign to win back white working-class voters through the creation of hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs that do not require a college degree."
In a tweet analyzing Biden's speech, Dan Pfeiffer, Pres. Obama's White House communications director wrote: "The GOP has succeeded in painting Dems as elites who look down on people who didn't go to college. Last night's speech was a high-profile attempt to rebut that impression. Biden reframed his economic agenda in terms of how it helped blue-collar workers."
What I found most interesting, however, were the two very different official GOP responses to Biden's SOTU and what those may portend for Republican strategy in 2024.
The highest-profile response came from Arkansas Governor and former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She, like her former boss, leaned into the culture wars that have been animating the GOP base for the last few years. "I'm the first woman to lead my state," said Sanders. "He's the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can't even tell you what a woman is."
But, while she made a passing reference to the economic pain faced by many Americans—the fault of a Biden administration that has wasted "trillions in reckless spending"—she spent no time actually addressing the economic worries of average Americans. Instead, she dedicated most of her speech to the idea that Americans are "under attack in a left-wing culture war" in which they are forced to "partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols…all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is—your freedom of speech."
This was a speech designed not for the average swing voter, but for the already engaged—and enraged—Republican base voter.
The other official response came from freshman Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.), who delivered the Spanish language rebuttal to the president's address. Unlike Gov. Sanders, who represents a deep-red state, Ciscomani was recently elected in a purple southern Arizona district that narrowly voted for Biden in 2020. He also outperformed Republican statewide nominees Blake Masters and Kari Lake. In other words, Ciscomani represents the kind of voters that Republicans need to win over in order to carry swing states like Arizona in the future, and he's been mentioned as a possible 2024 Senate candidate. Moreover, for a GOP that says it is invested in attracting and retaining a new generation of Latino voters, Ciscomani's win in 2022 provides a pretty solid blueprint for how to do so.
The freshman congressman's message could not have been more different from the one given by Gov. Sanders. If Sanders' speech was a reprise of Pres. Trump's infamous "American Carnage" inaugural speech, Ciscomani's response was more of an homage to Pres. Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America."
In his remarks, Ciscomani criticized the Biden administration's economic policies, but steered clear of the "war on woke" that not only defined Sanders' speech but has become a rhetorical staple for potential 2024 GOP candidates. He centered his remarks not on the decline of America, but on the renewal of the American Dream.
"President Biden wants you to believe that everything is great," Ciscomani said. "But why aren't people feeling great? The American Dream feels more unattainable and sadly the president fails to show leadership and present any viable solution."
Ciscomani ticks through the list of vague solutions to these problems like curbing "excess government spending" and "restoring energy independence." House Republicans, said Ciscomani, "believe in an accountable government that works for the people. We believe in fiscal responsibility and the power of hard work. We believe in individual liberty." There's nothing all that special here,it is all pretty boilerplate stuff.
But, what was unique was his tone and his mood. He concluded his speech with an "American Dream" call to arms.
"I truly believe in the American Dream because it is not centered around financial success. It's about the freedom to pursue happiness. It's the dream I'm living. It's a dream that unites us all. It's a dream worth defending and together we can make it a reality for all."
He told local news outlet KGUN that his goal was not to simply "focus on what I don't like and what I disagree with, but actually talk about what we want to do… it was a message of opportunity, optimism, looking to the future and ideas of how we can make things better."
There are a number of ways that GOP candidates and their campaigns can approach the upcoming election. One way is to lean into Americans' disillusionment, disappointments and feelings of being disenfranchised. It's what Gov. Sanders did Tuesday night. It's what Donald Trump successfully harnessed in 2016. But, notably, that strategy has fallen flat ever since. Trump's 'all base, all the time' strategy alienated more voters than it attracted. GOP candidates who emulated that style and focus also fell flat in 2022.
The other approach would look similar to the one that Ciscomani took in his Spanish language rebuttal on Tuesday night. It would acknowledge our current state of division and despair, but wouldn't revel in it. It would recognize that to win a national campaign, you have to win over independents and those voters who don't consume cable TV or social media 24 hours a day. Whether that message can win over a GOP primary electorate that has been rewarding the Sanders-style “war on woke” approach is the big question going forward.
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