It is no wonder Florida Sen. Marco Rubio needed to grab a bottle of water in the middle of delivering the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. The speech he was given to recite was like a hunk of stale, dry sourdough and it surely caught in his throat.
For 30 years, Republican aspirants to the presidency have been giving variations of the same speech. It sounded fresh and bold when Ronald Reagan first spoke the words as a candidate in 1980. At that point, the liberal era that began with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 had pretty much run out of gas. Democrats had grown too comfortable with their seemingly permanent lock on the House of Representatives, while their ideas about the creative use of government had devolved into a system of doling out federal dollars to clamoring interest groups.
Reagan declared that government was the problem, not the solution, and that taxes were too high and regulations on business too onerous. It was a winning message and helped bring blue-collar men and the South firmly into the Republican fold.
Rubio spoke the same language on Tuesday night but it sounded like a talking-points memo left over from Mitt Romney’s losing campaign. Rather than looking like a young man with new ideas, Rubio looked like a novice with no thoughts of his own.
Rubio tried to portray the president’s address as just another crazy liberal, tax-and-spend, big-government screed. That only made it more obvious that his own speech had been written well before Obama spoke. When Rubio chastised the president for failing to address the financial problems of Medicare, he looked a bit silly, because Obama had, in fact, spoken about creating a bipartisan plan to fix Medicare, one that will demand compromise from Democrats.
Rubio’s so-called response was not a real response at all. It was just another attack on the Republicans’ fictitious, scary version of Obama, a straw man that Romney went after in the 2012 campaign with no good result.
One of these days, Republicans will have to realize they need to compete with the real Obama, not their talk-radio version of him. And they must face up to a bigger problem, one exemplified by Rubio’s talk: The country has actually changed since 1980. There was, indeed, a Reagan revolution, followed by a Clinton accommodation, during which taxes did come down sharply, regulations were eliminated, welfare was reformed and the GOP took over the House. Republicans actually won most of what they wanted, but it is apparently easier for them to deny their victory than it is to acknowledge that things have not worked out quite as they promised.
A poorly regulated financial and banking sector was set free to run wild and nearly wrecked the economy. Lower taxes allowed the wealthy to become super-rich, but the promise of more jobs and higher salaries in a low-tax environment has not been realized for the middle class and working poor. All but a narrow slice of Americans at the very top are working harder and making less money than they did three decades ago. And big government? The highest rate of unemployment today is among ex-government workers.
Rubio’s speech was likely received well by the members of the old Reagan coalition. The problem for him and his GOP compatriots, though, is that there is a new coalition of minorities, women and young people that prefers Obama’s vision of effective government to the Reagan vision of hobbled government.
Rubio shouldn’t have been reaching for a mere bottle of water. What he really needed was a stiff drink chased with a big dose of reality.