What the Devil won't tell you
Ciscomani's Spanish response to Biden did him no harm — and that's doing a lot
U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani delivered the goods with the GOP's Spanish-language response to President Joe Biden's "State of the Union" address.
His speech was solid, unspectacular, made key points, and it was largely forgettable.
This is not a diss when it comes to responses to the president's annual speech. That's as good as it gets.
Compared to Sarah Huckabee Sanders' blood-curdling scream out of Little Rock, Ark., Ciscomani sounded like Abraham Lincoln.
I never know why Democrats or Republicans want to deliver this response. It's death by contrast. I don't care if it's Biden, Donald Trump or a random Bush out of Texas up on the dais before a joint session of Congress. First, people see the president of the United States. He leaves the White House, arriving in a motorcade three blocks long. He enters the U.S. House of Representatives to bipartisan cheers. The vice president sits over one shoulder. The speaker of the House presides over the other.
It's the president's mic and the commander-in-chief has a gallery full of heroes to glom onto and make their mojo his. He's at the rostrum of power, leading the free world. It's like revving a presidential Harley-Davidson and just to hear all those CC's of power combust.
Then here comes Skippy juggling by on a unicyle.
This night comes with the office. Presidents get a big White House, a 747 and one night each year to dominate the news cycle. Let them have it.
We've seen Marco Rubio seized by a bit of thirsty stage fright and Patrick Kennedy mocked for his shiny lips. Suddenly their careers are forever in idle.
Huckabee Sanders ran right into this trap, delivering an English version of the partisan response ripe with culture wars. Arkansas' new governor's speech, heavy on sucking up to the previous occupant of the White House, could be described as the Fox News response because it was an attempted war cry against woke mobs and Biden's aging frailty. It's the speech we get from a woman fresh off a victory over the word "Latinx" (we can all sleep easy now).
Her speech assumed the audience had been mainlining conservative media for the last five years and that they hadn't watched what Biden actually said or how he performed. Biden was kind of on his game, outmaneuvering Republicans, who were reduced to post-adolescent heckling.
Ciscomani, by contrast, worked a more adult angle. His speech seemed to assume that Biden would do alright. He's also appealing to a more Democratic audience in most of the country as Spanish speakers tend (Cubans, Salvadorans and Venezuelans, notwithstanding) to be more progressive. He's also representing a district he won by less than two points.
"Let's put aside our differences and focus on results to keep this dream alive for future generations," he said (in Spanish obviously, I've cribbed an English copy his office put out). "The state of our union is strong because our people are strong. We can overcome any obstacle."
Basically, he ended on Biden's note that there's nothing America can't do if the country comes together.
Culture done right
Let me just confess up front that Ciscomani could have been directing a MAGA mob to my house and I would have been oblivious (other than thinking he looked good doing it). I don't speak Spanish. But the congressman's office was kind enough to provide an English version of his reasonable speech.
It's not a bad night for accommodation. Use the other 364 days of the year for mortal combat.
Positioned in front of a camera alone, Ciscomani smartly highlighted his immigrant story. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen, whose migrant father drove a bus. God's work. And his son is now in Congress. He worked for what he got and he got what he worked for.
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where my dad worked as a city bus driver to give my sisters and me a chance at the American Dream. He showed his children the value of hard work and taught us to love our country. He also taught us that with determination and hard work, there are no limits in this great nation. And my mom has been the pillar of faith in our family. Always praying and reminding us that with faith, anything is possible.
That right there is a bullseye. God, family, country and success through hard work.
That's right in the Latino wheelhouse. Frankly, it's right in the American wheelhouse.
I'm a white guy, but I've lived in Tucson for 35 years and have been exposed enough to Latino culture to understand they are aspirant voters.
I remember talking to Raul Grijalva early on during my tenure at the Tucson Citizen and he lectured me on the issues that Latinos cared about: "White voters care about jobs, schools and health care," he told me. "Latino voters, on the other hand, care about jobs, schools and health care."
Yes, he was mocking my ignorance.
Democrats risk losing the Latino vote to guys like Ciscomani if they fail to understand Latinos are largely aspirational on a host of issues and not myopically devoted to immigration. In fact, tapping into America's culture of go-getters would probably succeed with all voters. Talk more about removing historical barriers to social mobility and they might just hold a permanent coalition but they don't ask me.
Ciscomani's immigrant story is also an American story. It's typical of the story of my grandparents, who came from Germany, Holland, Slovakia and Great Britain.
Ciscomani also showed how to score a cultural win without speaking in tinfoil-covered code.
More of that would have been better. Unfortunately for him, he probably had to feed the speech through House leadership sausage-machine. So it turned into a a five-point critique of Biden and a nine-point agenda for policy priorities without any real flesh on the bone.
Basically he turned inflation into four of those critiques dealing with the price of milk, bread and eggs; buying a home and gas prices.
Fine. Whatever. Democrats would hit a Republican president if eggs reached $6 a dozen on their watch. Republicans would be correct to point out that there's an avian flu. The president didn't kill birds. He's right to say "eggs are a luxury" because they freaking are (though they are coming down).
The Republicans would have been smart to have let Ciscomani focus more on his story and find a shorter, sharper attack on Biden, inflation and the border.
The GOP's poorly branded "Commitment to America" should be shelved until they can convince a majority that the right wing of the party doesn't need to be committed to the care of the state.
Also, Ciscomani didn't do much to set up the stakes or rationale behind the Republican threat to refuse to fulfill commitments to pay America's debt. Why do they think it's so important to risk thousands of Southern Arizona jobs and threaten a default? That's a case they are going to have to start making now.
He didn't do that and neither did Huckabee Sanders. She was too busy bemoaning the loss of sultry green M&M's and Mr. Potatohead, and positioning herself to be the VP candidate for Donald Trump.
Sometimes laying off the gas will open up a clear lane.
I have a feeling (informed by experience) that he couldn't just write his speech and deliver it as he saw fit. Speaker Kevin McCarthy's staff almost certainly insisted it include X, Y and Z.
Joey from Scranton
The star of the night, though, was Joe Biden. "Too old" my ass. The right-wing echo chamber keeps setting the bar for Biden so low that he wins by not drooling catatonically into the camera.
He did a lot better than that.
The country really hasn't had a chance to see Biden as a president doing president-y things. The coronavirus pandemic meant he didn't really get to campaign to big crowds, deliver a convention speech before a packed basketball arena or take the oath in front of the largest crowd ever to witness a speech, anywhere, ever. His first two addresses before Congress had limited attendance in the House.
This "State of the Union" was a chance for him to shine and he did. Yeah, he tripped over a couple of words as a recovering stutterer can. However, when the Republicans tried to jam him, he got to show the world how they play ball in Scranton. He jammed right back. A senile old man isn't better off the teleprompter than when he's on it. He doesn't seize on an unscripted moment to outfox his opposition. He got the GOP rank-in-file to promise no cuts to Social Security or Medicare.
Ciscomani also took cuts to those programs off the table.
Without touching debt payments, earned benefits or a tax hike, the debt ceiling fight is now a nickel-and-dime affair.
And as a foil, how does he do better than Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene shouting invectives in a white fur coat? The woman was practically designed in a lab by Democratic consultants. Nobody better plays to the rude, garish and ignorant stereotypes of the knuckle-dragging right than MTG.
Look, I don't pull punches from Republicans I think threaten the Constitution (or nod to the mass murder of their political opposition). I also think we have an obligation to give credit when the R's act like the conservative party the country needs them to be – a rational alternative to the Democrats.
Calling balls and strikes, Ciscomani pitched a strike. He even could have brought more heat at Biden and been OK. However, he also probably realized that the Republicans have some image reconstruction to do after insurrection, election denying and messing up the House speaker's election.
The GOP would be in a better place if his response was also in English and Huckabee Sanders' were only delivered in its original German.
Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you what the Devil won’t.