On Tuesday night (7 February) the US president Joe Biden fulfilled his constitutional requirement to, “from time to time”, inform Congress of the State of the Union and “recommend measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”.
In the annual address to the nation Biden predictably called for unity, and asked his Republican counterparts to work with him to find solutions to common problems. He spoke specifically about the economy, an infrastructure bill that will create new jobs, and reforms that have lowered immigration. The only real surprise was the president’s ad-libbed jabs at Republicans who shouted “liar” at him from the audience.
In a pre-drafted rebuttal to Biden’s State of the Union, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the governor of Arkansas and a former Donald Trump press secretary, focused on the divisions in America’s political discourse by framing it as a struggle between “freedom” and a “radical left”. Instead of a choice between “right” and “left”, she said American voters face a choice between “normal” and “crazy”. Not once did she provide a concrete a policy solution to anything that ails the country. This is despite how, leading up to last night’s speech, Republicans ranked strengthening the economy as their first priority.
The Republicans’ rebuttal fell to Sanders because she is a reminder of Trump’s Make America Great Again administration. She rehashed many of her former boss’s talking points: that America has been weakened by a “woke mob”, fixating on trans rights, the teaching of critical race theory in schools, and the Democrats’ alleged assault on freedom of speech. She also targeted Biden’s failures on standing up to China, the opioid crisis and on not closing the southern border.
But she failed to heed what should have been one of the biggest lessons of Trump’s 2016 campaign success – that just telling people what you are against is not saying the same thing as telling them what you are for. The problem is Republicans don’t have anything concrete to present to the American people. Biden’s “weakness” towards China doesn’t mean much if you can’t describe what strength looks like, and compassion for victims of the opioid epidemic feels hollow unless you can propose something to do about it. Even though it was unfeasible, Trump’s initial promise to “build the wall” both tapped into a grievance and offered a solution. (See also “drain the swamp” and “lock her up” – they might have been impossible or undemocratic measures, but they were measures that many still rallied around.) Since the former president left office, Republicans have had a hard time coming up with anything tangible to ignite voters beyond their most loyal base.
After years of substituting a policy platform for ideological clichés it’s hard to remember that the right used to stand for something. The Republicans were the party of small government, fiscal responsibility, Christian morality and strong foreign policy, who would maintain American dominance. The Republicans have lost that narrative. Their party leaders focus on telling voters who to hate, hoping that grievances alone will be enough to drag their supporters to the voting booths. But as last year’s midterm results proved, the electorate needs more than soundbites telling them the radical left is evil.
This lack of a platform has led to a disintegration of the Republican Party. Although some of its politicians did not lose the opportunity to heckle Biden during his speech last night, the tensest moment of the night came when the Republican senator Mitt Romney told the disgraced right-wing newcomer George Santos that he didn’t belong in Congress. This follows last month’s embarrassing House leadership election when it took the Republican Kevin McCarthy 15 rounds of voting to be elected speaker, the most since 1859, because far-right Congress members in his own party splintered and demanded concessions.
If Republicans want to reclaim the White House in 2024 they need to figure out what they want to accomplish. Red baseball caps are great for some, but Making America Great Again only works if you know exactly what needs fixing and how you’re going to do it.