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State of the Union: Two Voices of Opposition

Last night, three politicians addressed their county, proposed solutions to its problems, and presented visions for its future. Let’s take a look at each:

President Barack Obama

By now, Americans know what to expect from President Obama when he steps before a joint session of Congress to fill the House Chamber with noise for an hour. After all, he’s now done it 7 times: four State of the Union addresses, two speeches calling for stimulus packages, and one to promote Obamacare.

Add those to his two inaugural addresses, his three DNC speeches, a few overseas sermons, and countless campaign appearances, and Obama’s vision is no longer any mystery to the American public. His speech last night may as well have been an amalgamation of every previous speech he’s made: a paragraph stolen from the 2010 SOTU here, a quip on jobs from his DNC speech there. The President has four more years in office, but he’s made it clear that he’s not going to be bringing any new ideas to the table.

I wrote in October about the fundamental differences in vision between Obama and Mitt Romney, who at the time was the standard-bearer for the Republican Party. Other outlets have described Obama’s vision in similar terms, including The Daily Caller, which surmised:

“President ’s 2013  speech aggressively placed government at the center of Americans’ lives, starting with a litany of government economic plans, and ending by celebrating Americans as the subjects of government.”

Yet the Republican vision is no longer guided by Romney, and cannot be as neatly defined as it was in October, when the party was stretched to its breaking point in an attempt to hold its various factions together. Last night, Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul presented two of the leading visions competing for attention in the soul-searching GOP–and while both stood staunchly in opposition to Obama, the Senators’ divergences in substance in style presents a conundrum for their party as it attempts to regroup for 2016.

Sen. Marco Rubio

Rubio, who delivered the party’s official response, presented a traditional Republican platform infused with “compassionate conservatism,” the early Bush-era strategy that the party has steadily shifted away from for the last 8 years. His speech hit all the conservative high points–tax cuts, smaller government, support for the 2nd Amendment, and a strong national defense–and professed support for Social Security, Medicare, and immigration, issues on which Republicans came under attack in 2012.

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If Rubio’s speech was a departure from the pure fiscal focus of the past cycle, it certainly wasn’t anything new. Despite the young Senator’s fresh face, his message could not have been any more meat-and-potatoes in its attempt to reach out to swing voters hesitant to cut government programs. And he and the party can’t be blamed for this–the GOP won 5 of 7 presidential elections between 1980 and 2004 by running on these themes.

Sen. Rand Paul

Paul, giving a response that despite being sponsored by Tea Party Express that couldn’t properly be categorized as “Tea Party”, also claimed to be the successor to the Reagan era of Republican politics, but his speech eschewed calculation for conviction. Where Rubio and Obama both carefully framed their messages so as best to sugar-coat their partisan priorities, Kentucky’s junior Senator spoke simply and clearly about his belief in smaller government and the need for cuts to social programs, defense, and other areas of federal spending.

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Paul’s father, ex-Rep. Ron Paul, often pushed the boundaries of the GOP, operating at some times more comfortably outside the party than within, and endorsing a third-party candidate in 2008 while refusing to endorse Romney last year. Yet the younger Paul’s speech was decidedly Republican, referring to his party even more often than Rubio (who joined Obama in taking a bipartisan, all-of-us approach). Republican loyalists skeptical of the Pauls couldn’t help but take comfort in the fact that the Senator wants to reform their party from within, not create a splinter movement.

The GOP’s Choice

Differences in substance persist between the Rubio and Paul visions–most notably in foreign policy, where Paul expressed discontent with drone warfare tactics that presidents of both parties have authorized and called for cuts to defense, a position more often associated with Democrats than Republicans. Yet the choice for the GOP on domestic policy is one of style: traditional conservative pragmatism, or libertarian-tinged idealism?

As Reason magazine, which sympathizes with Paul, put it:

“President Obama’s speech was a clear presentation of a powerful state and collective action. Sen. Paul’s speech was a defense of individualism, small government and personal liberty. Sen. Rubio tried to present a don’t-scare-the-swing voters, softer defense of a smaller-ish government.”

Republicans will need to decide over the next four years if Paul’s brand of individualism is for them, or if Rubio’s gentler touch is the key to reviving the party’s glory days. In the meantime, they seem content to define themselves by opposition to Obama’s steady lurches to the left.

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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