WASHINGTON -- The consolation prize to the party out of power when a president presents his State of the Union address is air time afterward to offer a response. Some bright party star or up-and-comer is usually chosen, and this time it was second-term Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
Mr. Watts obviously was selected because he is the Republican Party's only black in Congress. The GOP, after another election in which black voters shunned it in droves, wants to rectify that substantial political problem.
Delivering the out-party response can be politically hazardous, as Bob Dole found out a year ago. As the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination at the time, the Senate majority leader looked so old and sounded so dated that he developed an image problem he never really overcame.
But for a 39-year-old from a relatively obscure state like Mr. Watts, the opportunity was a considerable one with little down side. He delivered a standard conservative Republican answer to President Clinton, touching all the usual bases. He castigated federal government too big, too powerful and too removed from Main Street. He deplored the disintegration of family values, the lack of fiscal responsibility and welfare's destructiveness to self-esteem.
He called for a balanced budget, more money for education, a tax cut and a bipartisan spirit in Congress to produce results for the American people. He said Democrats and Republicans "must work together . . . to win the twin wars against drugs and ignorance" and make America "a place where we all -- red, yellow, black, brown and white -- in some way feel a part of the American dream."
In other words, it was a boilerplate Republican speech and it probably would have been more effective except for one thing -- President Clinton had just given it. The words and the emphases were, to be sure, somewhat different, but the basic message was the same.
Just as he had done in the second two years of his first term and in his 1996 campaign for re-election, Mr. Clinton once again stole the essential Republican pitch, at the same time fleshing it out with enough relatively small initiatives -- national standards in education, more time off for parents of school kids, more money for Head Start -- to give it a "new Democratic" coloration.
Mr. Watts allowed himself what could have been taken as a slap at Mr. Clinton when he observed that "I was taught that character does count, and that character is doing what's right when nobody's looking." But he shared the president's reading of the last election.
"President Clinton was right on target tonight," Mr. Watts said. "He said the people want bipartisanship. They do. But they want the kind of bipartisanship that results in progress. They don't want phony compromise." His idea of bipartisanship, though, was Mr. Clinton caving in to the Republicans last year on the welfare bill.
Will of the people
"When the Republicans led the effort to reform welfare," he said, "President Clinton opposed it at first, but eventually, after we passed it, he bowed to the will of the people and signed it. We applaud his embrace of reform and believe me, we'll make sure it stays reform."
This last was an unsubtle warning to Mr. Clinton not to try, as he promised voters last fall, to "fix" the welfare bill to bring relief to legal immigrants and children harmed by harsh cutbacks. But compared to the sharp responses by past out-party speakers to other State of the Union addresses, this one was exceedingly mild.
It is no criticism of Mr. Watts' performance to note that he did not present a very stark contrast to the president. Rather, his speech underscored how effectively Mr. Clinton has moved his own party away from the liberal shibboleths that for so long gave the GOP ready targets to shoot at.
Mr. Watts may yet become a star in the Republican firmament. But the other night he was reduced to something close to an echo.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 2/07/97