The Daniels Response

It was that rare event when the GOP response surpassed the actual State of the Union. It was what a sane Republican critique of this presidency would be. It began with a grace note on Obama's courageous assault on bin Laden and the quiet dignity of his family life – avoiding the personal demonization of a well-liked president. There were several shrewd and helpful criticisms of his own side. And there were only a couple of off-notes. I don't believe the administration has divided Americans or sought to. I don't think it's fair to describe a stimulus in a potential depression as wasteful or irresponsible.

But by reminding us of the debt, and the deep need to tackle it, he reminded us that conservatism at its best is about bringing us back to reality. And the president's maddening refusal to tackle the long-term debt and entitlement insolvency in the Bowles-Simpson opening – and his decision to keep  these themes buried under a wave of new tax breaks in his speech tonight – gave Daniels an opening, where he outclassed the man who just left the stage.

If I were merely presented de novo between Daniels' speech and Obama's, I would vote for Daniels.

One day, maybe I'll be able to vote for such a conservative again. They know they have no chance in the roiling circus that Rove and Ailes built. I just remain deeply depressed by the tedium of the president's speech, its mediocrity, its unreconstructed micro-paleo-liberalism, its lack of imagination, its political cowardice. When, for example, will this president actually make the case for his own healthcare reform – a moderate, sane, historic reform that is the centerpiece of his first term – and which he didn't mention tonight? When will he be honest about the structural problems facing this country's economic competitiveness – which cannot be solved by more people going to community colleges?

Look: I still love the guy and wish him well. But this speech shows how he has become captive to the calculators and strategists and world-weary Washingtonians. There was nothing new here, except the mortgage relief, nothing fresh, nothing inspiring, no reason given to re-elect him, except that things are improving and the alternatives are insane. It was also an artlessly written speech, that felt as if a committee – still hovered over by Bill Daley – had written it. And the one joke was awful.

It may well be enough come November. But I expected more. And the country deserves more.