After President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and after Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (from Washington state) gives the Republican response, Senator Mike Lee (Republican from Utah) will give the Tea Party response. Senator Lee’s response, live-streamed on the web, won’t get the same television exposure as the other two, but it’s likely to make plenty of news. (Rep. Michele Bachmann’s skewed Tea Party response in 2011 generated more attention that the presidential address, and more comedy; I say “skewed” because Rep. Bachmann mostly stared at the wrong camera.)
It’s not exactly the Tea Party that’s sponsoring Senator Lee, but the one of the largest Tea Party groups, the Tea Party Express, which has a sharp electoral orientation. If there was grassroots consultation or any kind of formal process associated with picking Senator Lee (or Bachmann in 2011 or Herman Cain in 2012 or Senator Rand Paul last year), it’s not evident, not even the web-based voting major league sports employ to stoke interest in their all-star games. The leaders of the Tea Party Express caucused and decided Senator Lee would be an effective spokesman. Chairwoman Amy Kremer explained that “Senator Mike Lee has been both a tea-party hero for supporters across the nation, and a conservative leader in the upper chamber. He has introduced tangible policy solutions to some of America’s biggest problems.” (Apparently, Senator Lee was last year’s first choice as well, but passed on the opportunity.)
Whatever the speaking slot has done for the movement, it’s not clear it’s helped the speakers.
The more important point, however, is the process of institutionalizing a Tea Party voice in the ritual of the State of the Union address. The State of the Union itself, suggested in the Constitution, was routinely mailed into Congress until President Woodrow Wilson (tea party villain) decided to deliver the speech in person. Now tradition and ritual dominate public attention for a week, beginning with speculation and ending with analysis.
Doubling the critical response, just in the last couple of years and just because the Tea Party Express decided to do it, alters the dynamics. The Republican response can be echoed–or undermined–by the Tea Party alternative. That alternative creeps into the news, generating respect or ridicule. And Tea Party officials can jockey to promote themselves on the Tea Party line. The group will claim its 5-15 minutes, and then attention moves on. Institutionalization and routine reserves attention, but it also bounds it. It remains to be seen whether this media moment helps or hurts the movement as a whole; certainly, it will go a long way in defining it.