Let’s just stipulate that the response to the State of the Union is a lousy assignment. There’s no audience, no applause, no podium where you can stash water within easy reaching distance. You inevitably look like you’re filming a hostage video, or an ad for your local car dealership, or a podcast in your basement. You have to respond to a speech you haven’t even heard, and your role is strictly partisan; your job is to attack the president, who can look like a statesman because he doesn’t have to stoop to attack you. You basically have to predict doom, and it’s tough to do that without sounding like you’re rooting for doom.
So considering the circumstances, Florida senator Marco Rubio did OK. It was nowhere near his best speech, but it was nowhere near the clueless-dweeb disaster that turned Bobby Jindal into a Kenneth the Page punchline in 2009. As usual, Rubio was most compelling when he talked about his working-class parents, his student loans, and his modest bedroom community; on policy, he mostly rehashed familiar anti-Obama talking points about big government, tax hikes and Solyndra. He can be mesmerizing talking optimistically about free enterprise and American exceptionalism and the American Dream; he sounded sour and defensive whining about Obama’s suggestions that Republicans protect the rich. He barely talked about immigration, the issue where he had such interesting things to say in our cover story this week.
But Rubio didn’t embarrass himself. He got to introduce himself to millions of Americans who missed his Republican National Convention speech because they were still in shock over the Clint Eastwood fiasco. He talked about the middle class, while reminding the country that he’s part of it. And the media hubbub over his awkward lunge for his Poland Springs bottle—Watergate!—might help distract from his generic rehash of Mitt Romney’s policy playbook. If Republicans believe that they lost in 2012 because Romney was a boring rich white guy who alienated Hispanics, they got to see a charismatic Cuban-American with humble roots but otherwise indistinguishable positions on every issue except for immigration.
On the other hand, for those of us who believe the GOP’s problems run deeper than that, Rubio’s speech was a stark example of the party’s internal contradictions. He called for spending cuts, but couldn’t name anything he wanted to cut. He did suggest Medicare needs to change, but vowed that somehow none of the changes would hurt seniors. He blamed Obama for the draconian spending cuts in the “sequester,” even though most Republicans voted for it. He bemoaned the federal deficit, but failed to mention it’s shrunk during the Obama era. He called for 4% economic growth to close the deficit, which sounds lovely, but is not an actual policy proposal; one might as well call for 0% unemployment and 100% happiness. Rubio also mocked the notion that “government can control the weather,” a really dumb objection to climate action. The less said about that, the better.
But Rubio will be fine. Four years ago, Jindal was a laughingstock, the singsong dork who had mocked “something called volcano monitoring” in the Obama stimulus just before a volcano erupted in Alaska. Now he’s considered a contender for 2016. Rubio is an even more eloquent spokesman for a party that believes in lower taxes, aggressive foreign policies, conservative social policies, Tea Party rhetoric and spending cuts that dare not be named. And while this was a leadership audition of sorts, he’ll face an even bigger test when it comes time to make a deal or walk away from Obama on immigration reform.
When Obama delivers his next State of the Union, most Americans won’t even remember who delivered the last response. Speaking of which: Do you remember which Republican did the honors in 2011? A guy by the name of Paul Ryan; I can’t say I remember what he said, but I know it didn’t hurt his career.