Should the GOP counterprogram Biden’s State of the Union in “free Virginia”?

Ideally Biden would seize on COVID as an excuse to end the miserable tradition of the State of the Union altogether. No speech, no rebuttal. Just golden silence.

Seriously, there’s no point. The president never gets an enduring bounce from the speech. Voters from the other party don’t even watch. And the rebuttal is such a cursed, thankless task that most politicians are doubtless quietly relieved when they’re passed over for it during the selection process.

But we won’t be so lucky. Biden will give this speech for the simple reason that a president can’t afford to turn down a free hour of primetime television even when he was nothing to say. And the GOP will give a rebuttal for the simple reason that they won’t want their own party’s viewpoint to go unrepresented on an evening when Americans are paying attention to politics. It’s going to happen. The question is how Republicans can maximize their opportunity.

Guy Benson makes an astute proposal here, one with so much obvious upside that I think we’re guaranteed to see something similar to what he describes on the night of March 1. I don’t like the idea of members of Congress ducking out of the president’s address to attend their own party’s rebuttal instead. America has too much disunity as it is; the commander-in-chief is owed the courtesy of attendance on the occasion, lest a precedent be set where the opposition party routinely boycotts SOTUs delivered by presidents on the other side. But there’s a catch this year: Nancy Pelosi is reportedly limiting live attendance to 25 members of each party in the name of limiting COVID transmission. That’s an absurd bit of overcaution at a moment when nearly every member of the House and Senate has been vaxxed and boosted and Democrats are supposedly eager to communicate a return to normalcy in 2022. If she wants to reduce the risk of a COVID outbreak, she could just require proof of vaccination as a condition of attendance and let any at-risk members choose to stay home.

It’s not as if D.C. is a hotbed of Omicron at the moment either. After a ferocious wave in January, Washington now enjoys the second-lowest case rate in the U.S., trailing only Maryland next door. Given all the immunity instilled locally by the new variant, by March COVID might have all but disappeared (temporarily) in the capital. There’s no reason to limit attendance.

But if she insists, the GOP would be fools not to follow Benson’s playbook and use the occasion to contrast their posture on COVID with the Democrats’. If the scene on Capitol Hill is destined to be one of sparse attendance and hypercaution, the obvious play is to counterprogram Biden with raucous normalcy in the rebuttal. And Benson has just the guy for the job: Glenn Youngkin, the new governor of a Biden +10 state, who got elected promising to empower parents and is battling school officials as we speak over mask mandates.

Biden is an underwhelming orator whose rhetoric will ring even weaker in a mostly-empty hall. The country is yearning for a return to normal life, but Democratic leaders are apparently on the brink of sending a strong signal back to voters: No. They are contemplating allowing even fewer people into the building than they did a year ago. Might Pelosi require the few attendees to wear made-in-China fitted medical masks, too? Republicans, by contrast, could host a heavily-vaccinated, masks-optional showcase that oozes upbeat normalcy. This would be a strong move on the merits, and is also a political winner at this point. Somewhat cynically, if the whole spectacle infuriates the usual “safetyist” suspects in the media, and inspires tribal Democrats to cling to increasingly-unpopular and seemingly-endless restrictions even longer, November’s red backlash may only grow bigger.

Viewers would watch (or see clips of) a shrinking, unpopular president reading a moribund speech in front of a mostly-empty house, juxtaposed with a hall packed with Republicans cheering on their side (GOP leaders should invite all of their members barred by Pelosi back in DC down to Richmond). Democrats would be more than welcome race over to MSNBC and leftist Twitter and denounce the event as irresponsible. Few outside their echo chamber will care, let alone agree, at this stage. Republicans could also easily fire back at such critiques by noting how many prominent Democrats routinely fly around the country, dine at restaurants, and even defy their own regulations while attending crowded indoor sporting events, only to lie about it when confronted (this whopper is legitimately funny). Enjoy that spin, Democrats. The party in power is losing the country and the plot on these issues. The GOP has an opportunity to press this emerging advantage in an appealing, inviting way — via an appealing and inviting governor. They should seize it.

Easy call, no? Keep 25 Republicans in Washington for Biden’s address to show proper respect to the president and send the rest over to Richmond to pack the chamber for Youngkin’s speech. Don’t just tell the country that the GOP is more willing to pivot to endemic-COVID normalcy. Show them. The visual contrast between an almost deserted House chamber for Biden and an upbeat crowded house for Youngkin’s speech would illustrate the choice for voters this fall in a way words couldn’t.

Just one catch: Is Youngkin really the guy whom Republican voters want to deliver this message? I can think of someone who’s more closely associated with the “back to normal” rejection of restrictions, who also trumpets his state as a “free” one compared to cautious blue jurisdictions like California, and who’s more popular with the GOP base than Youngkin is.

But I can also think of someone else who, for his own selfish reasons, might not allow that guy to be gifted a national platform by the party from which to introduce himself to voters.

So yeah, it probably will be Youngkin.

Either way, the GOP should make these plans and go public with them ASAP, to lock them in before Pelosi changes her mind about limited attendance at the SOTU. COVID will be so scant in D.C. by then and the politics of an empty chamber will be so bad for Democrats as most of the country transitions to quasi-normalcy that she’s destined to rethink her approach in the next few weeks. If congressional Republicans want to rally around Youngkin instead of sitting politely for Biden, they should declare their intentions now. Then, when Pelosi changes her mind, they have an excuse not to change theirs. “Can’t make it for the SOTU. Already got plans.”

I’ll leave you with this, a depressing gut-check about where some “safety first” adherents stand nearly two years into the pandemic.

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