The frustrated GOP response to Biden’s State of the Union speech was all about the third rail of American politics.
There were boos, heckles, and jeers on Tuesday in Washington. It wasn’t an open mic night at a comedy club. It was the State of the Union.
Joe Biden’s second formal State of the Union address to Congress was a pugnacious and, at times, partisan speech that met with a heated response from Republicans.
It wasn’t just the prepared official Republican response from Sarah Sanders, the newly elected governor of Arkansas who had served as a top press aide to Donald Trump, which focused on hot-button culture-war issues. Sanders argued “the dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy,” and harped on Biden’s surrender to “a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”
Instead, Biden’s suggestion that Republicans wanted to get rid of Social Security referencing a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) to let all government programs sunset after five years unless explicitly reauthorized, drew loud and angry responses. Although Biden caveated this by saying that only some Republicans want to take away Social Security and Medicare, nearly all of them yelled at him or booed at the implication that they would risk touching the biggest third rail in American politics. Both Speaker Kevin McCarthy and former President Donald Trump have insisted that Republicans would not do any such thing. During Biden’s speech, Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-TX) shouted, “Name one, name one,” from her seat.
Afterward, Republicans were insulted at the implication expressed by Biden. Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) told Vox that “it cuts me to the core.” One of the most vocal moderates in the Republican Party, Bacon said Biden assuming all Republicans share Rick Scott’s views on entitlement reform was unfair. “We could say the entire Democrat Party is like [Ilhan] Omar and that wouldn’t be fair either, would it?”
This was echoed by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), a longtime McCarthy ally, who noted that when Biden “came out and said [Republicans are] trying to cut Social Security, there were a lot of boos.” He added, “and I thought that that was pretty fair,” though he expressed his dismay at the vocal heckling that Biden faced from some Republicans.
Republicans also showed their discontent with Biden’s adherence to other progressive orthodoxies. There was an outburst of laughter from Republicans when Biden said that the United States will still need oil for the next 10 years — a line that wasn’t in his prepared remarks — which they viewed as deeply unrealistic. Afterward, LaMalfa noted this immediately when he listed his thoughts on the speech. “I would really wish [Biden] had been more realistic when he said we’re going to need oil for 10 years. We’re going to need it for 150 years.”
This doesn’t mean there still isn’t the potential for bipartisan moments in the coming Congress. After all, the first person in the chamber to jump to applaud Biden’s line about cracking down on Big Tech was Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is not exactly the model of centrism in modern American politics.
But it does set the stage for a real confrontation over the debt ceiling in the coming months. LaMalfa expressed his hope that Biden and McCarthy could build a relationship in the coming months. He contrasted the Biden of the Obama administration who negotiated a fiscal cliff deal with John Boehner as “Biden 1.0” and the more partisan and progressive Biden of recent years as “Biden 2.0.” And, as for the Biden of tonight, LaMalfa said that was “Biden 1.9.”