GOP: "The devil is in the details"

Conservative Republicans struggle to criticize a popular president's well-received speech.

By Christopher M. Matthews

Published February 25, 2009 1:00PM (EST)

Gathered in Statuary Hall, just outside the House chamber, to chat up their hometown reporters, Republican lawmakers hailed Obama’s calls for fiscal responsibility in his congressional address tonight, but attacked the president for speaking in generalities.

“There weren’t a lot of details,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas. “It was just a recitation of the problems we all know we have.”

The Republican critique is a tried and true opposition reaction to the State of the Union: praise the president for promising reform, but attack him for not offering specific solutions. And it wasn't surprising -- it was a difficult night for the GOP. Obama did not give the Republicans much ammunition, and they were acutely aware of the night’s historic significance. So as they've been doing frequently lately, they tried to find something Obama said that they could claim as their own.

“Tonight all Americans were proud eyewitnesses to history as an African-American president addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the GOP's Senate leader, and therefore one of Obama's chief antagonists.

Republicans said they looked forward to working with the president, and hailed his calls for fiscal responsibility.

"As a member of Congress sitting on the floor I could not help but feel proud of the history that was made here tonight," said Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio. “Further, I hope that President Obama will abide by his message of fiscal restraint.”

The Republican applause during the president’s speech was emblematic of the GOP response. Almost grudgingly, the red side of the aisle gave standing ovation after standing ovation to Obama’s calls to hold Wall Street accountable, save the auto industry, and fight terrorism. What else could they do?

And afterwards, outside the chamber, Republicans desperately searched for a line of attack. What they came up with was best summarized by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.

“The president did a good job of reiterating the broad outlines of his agenda,” Pence said. “But the devil is in the details.”

The debate over those details, Pence promised, will begin tomorrow.

Christopher M. Matthews

MORE FROM Christopher M. Matthews

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

War Room