Not all traditions need be traditional. One that fits that rule is the traditional rebuttal speech after a presidential State of the Union address. Traditionally, it is delivered by a distinguished member of the party opposite from that of the president. It therefore ensures that the speaker will be a loser, so to speak.
The purpose, of course, is the American sense of fairness. If you give a president an hour to hurl propaganda, it only seems right that a propagandist from the other side gets a few minutes to say the guy you just heard is full of propaganda. The other purpose is to hold the audience looking in on the State of the Union for another 20 minutes or so, in which the networks might sell some more advertising. Now as traditions go, this one is not very old. It doesn't compare, for instance, with the recent decision of the U.S. Army to go back to the traditional two-tone blue uniforms the Yankees wore in the Civil War.
The problem, as most people sense when they switch the channel immediately after the president gives his or her friends a good photo op, is that the rebutallist will have had virtually no time to prepare remarks because he or she has no idea what the president was going to say. This is the reason that the president, if a good sport, will get down on his knees and crawl out of the room, hugging and kissing every dude or dudess who wants to get on camera with him. This gives the rebuttalist a few more seconds to make sure he doesn’t rebut something the president did not say. Clearly, that is a challenge, and the rebuttal must be prepared in advance, pretty much guessing that a tiger won’t change its stripes. Or a zebra for that matter.
So we had, just last week, our own Sen. Marco Rubio trying to put down President Obama on various points, even if he did not know what points the president made, and even – as some have noted – if he agrees with some of the points that he is by tradition compelled to disagree with. A candid speaker might begin:
“Good evening, my fellow Americans. I don’t know what the other fellow just said but believe me, he’s out to lunch…”
Now Marco Rubio did not have a good night, what with the water thing and all, which only made him look sillier than he makes himself look when he rewrites his family history and tries to poor mouth his current status when everybody knows that anybody who wins an important office in Florida quickly becomes upper-middle class without doing anything actionable. It just goes with the territory.
That said, the evening did not make Rubio seem presidential, and it might even do him a favor by stopping the talk about him running for the big job in four years. The bigger favor, however, would be taking the whole notion of the rebuttal speech and throwing it in the traditional wastebasket.