A Former Speechwriter’s View of the 2020 State of the Union

PRI is fortunate to be home to several former speechwriters for Presidents and Governors, including me.

Anyone who has been a speechwriter watches a big public speech like this week’s State of the Union address or Gov. Newsom’s upcoming State of the State address on Feb. 19 with great interest – both for what is said and how the message is delivered through the power of words and the stagecraft.

In years past, we’ve gotten together to tape episodes of PRI’s Next Round podcast giving the former speechwriters’ take on these important political moments.

Naturally, I watched President Trump’s State of the Union address this week through this lens.

Looking at the speech on style, I thought the President was very effective in his use of real life Americans to illustrate either a problem he wants to solve, or the need to pass a key provision in his policy agenda for the year ahead.

Take the moment when he introduced fourth-grade student Janiyah Davis from Philadelphia.  Janiyah’s mom was hoping to receive a state opportunity scholarship so her daughter could break out of a low-performing school and attend a better school of her choice.  Unfortunately, she was on a waiting list. According to USA Today, “state law in Pennsylvania caps how much donors can contribute to the opportunity scholarship fund.”  Thus, there are 40,000 to 50,000 more applicants than money available.

Thanks to the generosity of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Trump was able to announce in his address that Davis was getting her long-overdue scholarship.  And it humanized the need to adopt the President’s proposal for education freedom scholarships, which PRI’s Lance Izumi recently wrote about.

By shining the spotlight on Janiyah, Trump put a human face on the importance of giving every student, especially those living in poor and inner-city communities, the financial means to break out of a traditional public school and empower them to attend the school of their choice.

Not only was this a great television moment, it was smart politics, too.  Who at home watching Janiyah smile with great excitement upon learning about her new scholarship wouldn’t also want millions of other kids in her shoes to have the same opportunity for a bright future.

For equal time, I also watched the Democratic response, this year given by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.  Whomever is tasked to give the minority party’s response is always in a difficult spot.  The contrast between the President and whomever delivers the response is huge, from staging to stature.

I’ve had the opportunity to write several “Republican responses” to State of the State addresses delivered by various Assembly GOP leaders over the years, so I can identify with the conundrum that Whitmer and her speechwriters were in.  Essentially, as the speech is written days in advance, you are having to guess what you are responding to in the President’s speech, while also offering your party’s alternative vision.

Often, the person delivering the response has caused heartburn for the party.  Recall, Sen. Marco Rubio awkwardly stopping his speech as he gasped for water or Rep. Joe Kennedy appearing to have some sort of drool on the side of his face that proved a distraction for viewers.

My takeaway from Whitmer’s speech is “no harm, no foul.”  She didn’t have a Rubio or Kennedy moment.  Instead, she gave a run-of-the-mill speech, outlining efforts by various Democratic governors on infrastructure and health care.  That was probably the best that Democrats could hope for – a solid speech that didn’t cause any public embarrassment.

In the end, the hullaballoo over Tuesday’s night’s speech won’t last very long.  In fact, most people have already moved on to the next major political debate.  What a shame for the teams of speechwriters on both sides of the aisle, who worked weeks and weeks hoping to create their version of, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” only to see it forgotten in 24 hours.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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