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McMorris Rodgers delivers calculated rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union

McMorris Rodgers: “Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government’s.”
McMorris Rodgers: “Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government’s.”

President Barack Obama had a case of a person helped by health care reform. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers had a case of someone hurt by it.

Obama proposed raising the minimum wage to give workers more take-home pay. McMorris Rodgers proposed cutting taxes and cutting energy and health care costs to let them keep more of their pay.

Obama mentioned growing up the son of a single mom and reaching the White House. McMorris Rodgers talked about growing up the daughter of Kettle Falls fruit growers and reaching Congress.

Obama honored a veteran struggling with his wounds from war. McMorris Rodgers paid tribute to a Spokane soldier who died.

The Eastern Washington Republican’s response to the State of the Union was a clearly calculated rebuttal. But a Democratic political consultant and a public relations expert with strong GOP ties gave McMorris Rodgers high marks for her 12-minute speech.

“I thought she did great. She was cool, calm and collected,” said Cathy Allen of the Connections Group, a Seattle consultant to many Democratic campaigns. “She was not trying to fuel the traditional ‘Republican mean’ … not trying to cut Obama down into little pieces.”

She offered a great personal story that could appeal to other women, said Emily Baker, a member of the George W. Bush administration who now serves as a principal for Gallatin Public Affairs in Boise.

Giving the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address was the five-term representative’s biggest, although not her first, turn on a national political stage.

She is regularly among House GOP leadership – often the only woman in the group – as Speaker John Boehner and others gather for news conferences on key policy statements. She was also the “host” of the 2012 National Republican Convention, giving short speeches at the beginning of each night’s floor activity.

She’s not the first member of Congress from Eastern Washington’s 5th District to do so; Tom Foley did it twice in 1990 and 1992, although he was speaker of the House at the time. She’s not the first congresswoman from Washington state tapped for the job; Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Bellevue Republican, gave the response to Bill Clinton’s 1999 speech.

Giving the response is a tough assignment, said Cornell Clayton of the Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. A president often presents a platform of goals and ideas, and a response, by nature, tends to be negative.

A great speech can elevate someone to national prominence, Clayton said. The theatrics of the president’s speech to a packed chamber with members standing and clapping make that difficult for someone sitting alone in a room, looking into a camera.

“It’s very risky if you don’t do it well,” he said. “The ones we remember are the ones that are awful.”

Congressional Democrats were knocking McMorris Rodgers even before she spoke, sending out statements calling her “shutdown Cathy” for voting with other GOP leaders to shut parts of the federal government down last year in the budget dispute.

But early returns from the national media gave her high marks, with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell saying she gave a speech that was more policy than politics and presented “a kinder, gentler face” for Republicans.

McMorris Rodgers clearly was chosen to appeal to women and did a very good job fulfilling that assignment, Baker said. Whether it will boost her political future remains to be seen, but clearly there was a risk if she hadn’t done a good job, Baker added.

Her personal stories of growing up, working “stepping stone” jobs to pay for college, getting married and having three children all provide things other women who balance family and work can relate to, Baker said.

“I think that’s a critical segment of the population for Republicans to reach,” she said. There are a growing number of female GOP officials in that mold, but McMorris Rodgers was among the earliest.

Allen agreed that some elements of McMorris Rodgers’ autobiography come “right out of Central Casting.” But they’re different from common images many people have of Republican leaders, and that likely is why she was chosen, Allen said.

While she drew a contrast with Obama, it’s one that suggests they could sit down and talk about things rather than argue, Allen added.

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