Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Tuesday night rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address shows that Republican politicians seem completely unable to deliver a message aimed at audiences beyond the party’s Fox News base.
Sanders opened and closed her speech with personal anecdotes, and peppered it throughout with the sort of false and misleading claims about the Biden administration’s record and policy agenda that typify GOP State of the Union rebuttals. But she devoted the spine of her speech to themes that might be incomprehensible to those not steeped in the narratives of the right-wing press.
In Sanders’ telling, Biden’s surrender to the “woke mob” is the greatest threat the country faces. She criticized the president for “weakness” and declared him “unfit to serve as commander in chief.”
“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” she said. “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight. Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols.”
Unhinged denunciations of Biden and depictions of the nation — and conservatives in particular — as under siege by all-powerful leftists are familiar fodder for fans of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham. Fox hosts loved the speech for reflecting back their own talking points, and viewers watching on the right-wing network might have been nodding along.
But Republican politicians can speak to them anytime via a friendly interview with one of the network’s prime-time stars. This was a chance for the party to reach beyond its base to people who do not reflexively support GOP candidates, and Sanders fumbled it.
Biden, meanwhile, used his address to speak to the whole country. He opened by congratulating the Republican leaders of the House and Senate and highlighting his administration’s past bipartisan successes with the help of his “Republican friends.” Biden pointed to potential areas of common ground over the next two years, even as he vowed to oppose the Republican Party’s most extreme positions. “We have to see each other not as enemies, but as fellow Americans,” he said toward the end of the speech. “We’re good people, the only nation in the world built on an idea.”
Given what will likely be his biggest audience of the year, Biden tried to reach people outside his base. The Republicans didn’t respond in kind.
It is perhaps unsurprising that, offered the opportunity to reach the entire country, Sanders instead seemed focused on stroking the pleasure centers of Fox viewers. She was a fixture on the network as Donald Trump’s White House press secretary, then provided the same pro-Trump analysis from the network’s payroll as a Fox contributor. Following the example of her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who worked as a Fox contributor in between GOP presidential runs, Sanders built her profile at the network, then ran successfully for his old job.
But Sanders’ address is part of a broader sickness in the Republican Party. Its leadership has become increasingly subjugated by Fox hosts and other right-wing propagandists who win ratings and money with crude demagoguery aimed at keeping viewers from dropping off during commercial breaks.
Trump honed his political brand with a regular weekly segment on Fox & Friends, then relied on Fox hosts as his White House kitchen cabinet. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his most prominent likely challenger for the 2024 presidential nomination, owes his political ascension to the network and has courted its hosts and viewers.
Every Republican politician, from the Republican National Committee chair to congressional leaders to would-be candidates, needs to manage their relationship with the network. Republican congressional investigations are aimed at Fox-friendly topics like Hunter Biden, while its members use hearings to parrot the white supremacist conspiracy theories frequently heard on the network.
It is not good for the Republican Party that Fox’s stars are presidential advisers and party kingmakers with international influence. Its focus on keeping the party’s most vitriolic elements happy keeps it from making appeals to the rest of the country. That’s fine if you govern a red state like Arkansas, where the greatest threat to your political future likely comes from a challenger who’s even further to the right. But it’s why the party keeps losing winnable elections in swing states.