Tonight's Republican response to the State of the Union address was notable for almost completely lacking one key thing — criticisms of President Obama.
Indeed, new Iowa senator Joni Ernst began her response by saying that she wasn't going to "respond to a speech," but would instead lay out a positive GOP agenda — an agenda that, as it turned out, avoided hot-button issues and controversial rhetoric.
Ernst's main direct criticism of Obama came on the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline. She said Obama had been "delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years" and that he would soon have "a decision to make: will he sign the bill, or block good American jobs?"
But after that, she focused on areas of potential common ground — trade and tax reform. "Let's tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific," Ernst said. She also called to "simplify America's outdated and loophole-ridden tax code," and said "Republicans think tax filing should be easier for you, not just the well-connected."
The next section of her speech discussed combating terrorism and honoring veterans. There were few specifics here — but again, no criticisms of the president.
Then, toward the end, she quickly listed several of her party's principles. These were:
- Fighting to "repeal and replace" Obamacare
- Working "to correct executive overreach"
- Cutting "wasteful spending" and balancing the budget (though not through higher taxes)
- Preventing cyberattacks
- Confronting "Iran's nuclear ambitions"
- Defending life
Absent from the speech? Illegal immigration, entitlement reform, and same-sex marriage — all issues on which Ernst has held some very conservative positions in the past.
It's important to remember here that Ernst isn't laying out her own agenda, but that of her party's leaders in Congress. And her change in tone is emblematic of the GOP Congress's new messaging strategy — intended to portray the party as focused on productive governing rather than positions that may seem extreme or divisive.
But a battle over funding the Department of Homeland Security is looming, and is likely to put unauthorized immigration back at the forefront of the agenda in Washington. So we'll see how long this new comity lasts.