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Nearly everything that happens on Capitol Hill has symbolic meaning. By choosing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to deliver the official response to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, the Republicans are sending the nation two messages about their priorities: Undo much of what Obama has done, but undo it in a civil way.
In his seventh term, Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. The man loves numbers so much, he has crafted his own plan to deal with the country's economic crisis: A Roadmap for America's Future.
Since Congress returned in early January, Ryan has been a ringmaster
of the Republicans' rush to repeal Obama's health care legislation. Together with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Ryan relentlessly preaches deficit reduction and fiscal conservatism.
Former Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD) says Ryan was selected by the Republican leadership to provide counterpoint to Obama's speech because Ryan has "a reputation for detailed — albeit provocative and controversial — responses, solutions to the fiscal challenge."
Because the Republicans "have identified budget reduction, fiscal discipline and job creation as their themes," Morella says, Ryan "is probably the best responder."
David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, seconds the motive. "Paul Ryan is clearly viewed as one of the rising stars of the Republican Party," Canon says.
While Ryan's views "are more to the right than many in his party — especially on entitlement reform," Canon says, "he will be an effective person to deliver the message that we must start to get serious about deficit reduction."
Canon adds, "Given that the focus of Obama's speech is going to be on the economy, but I would assume with a focus on what the government can do to help 'put the economy in overdrive,' Ryan will present the alternative view that argues for more federal government belt-tightening and more support for business."
Risks Of Responding
Ryan is somewhat of a surprise choice to opine following Obama. And the national spotlight could lead to greater prominence.
But giving the opposition's response to the president's annual address is not without peril. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal discovered this in 2009, when he replied to Obama's address to a joint session of Congress. Jindal's delivery was considered flat, and his political star lost considerable luster.
For his part, Ryan said in a statement: "Delivering an address to the nation is a unique opportunity, and I am grateful to my party's leaders for entrusting me with this responsibility. I am hopeful that the president will work with the new House majority to cut spending, reform government and restore the foundations for growth and job creation. More than rhetoric, we need results."
The New Civility
The key word here is rhetoric.
In the wake of the Tucson shootings, the national debate has focused on civil discourse. Choosing a more volatile speaker to deliver the official response would send another message.
When it comes to the presentation of the speeches, their content and reaction to them, "the pressure is on both parties," says Susan Herbst, "to be on their best behaviors."
Herbst, a political scientist and president-elect of the University of Connecticut, says, "There will still be the usual divided clapping and strong shows of partisanship, no matter how congressmen are seated. But you are unlikely to see yelling from the floor — for example, 'You lie!', or any displays of that sort."
She adds, "I expect both the president and Rep. Ryan to reach out and make strong calls for increased civility and bipartisanship."
Ryan not only has experience, says Connie Morella, but is also "low key and articulate, which help his credibility."
And his call for fiscal fitness appeals to Tea Party conservatives, who sometimes operate independently of the Republican Party. In fact, the Tea Party Express website is presenting its own contrapuntal webcast following the State of the Union, featuring Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN).
As the National Journal points out, Ryan "is a big deal among Tea Party activists."
The Republicans are hoping that Ryan will be seen as a symbol of someone who represents frugality, civility, credibility — and other kinds of tea as well.