As I wrote earlier, I’m no fan of State of the Union speeches. I’m usually no fan of the opposition-party responses, either, for a variety of reasons. First, they suffer in comparison to the pomp offered the President and can’t avoid seeming anti-climactic. The only person who ever really got that was Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who arranged to give his response in 2010 in the Virginia legislature, with his fellow Republicans offering applause in a venue that at least approximated that enjoyed by Barack Obama.
However, at least rhetorically, Marco Rubio took the correct path in responding to the usual SOTU laundry-list speech. In his rebuttal, Rubio stayed away from offering the Republican legislative agenda, and instead stuck to the Republican and conservative philosophies of governing and economics. Rather than try to compete with Santa Claus, Rubio explained that, in the words of Robert Heinlein, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch:
This opportunity — to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life — it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business, and when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs.
Presidents in both parties — from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — have known that our free-enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity.
But President Obama, he believes it’s the cause of our problems, that the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough, or control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more, and spend more. This idea — that our problems were caused by a government that was too small — it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.
And the idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle-class taxpayers, that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried.
More government isn’t going to help you get ahead; it’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities; it’s going to limit them. And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses, and new private-sector jobs; it’s going to create uncertainty.
Because more government breeds complicated rules and laws that small businesses can’t afford to follow. Because more government raises taxes on employers who then pass the costs on to their employees through fewer hours, lower pay, and even layoffs. And because many government programs that claim to help the middle class often end up hurting them.
The only agenda item/hobby horse mention from Rubio was not a proposal for another government program. Rubio proposed yet again a balanced budget amendment to force government to live within its means. There are risks with this idea, which we’ve covered in depth, but as we continue to see massive annual deficits adding to our rapidly rising national debt, the risks are outweighed by the potential for catastrophe in the future.
Rubio also offered a stinging rebuttal to Obama’s demagoguery:
But his favorite attack of all is that those of us who don’t agree with him, that we only care about rich people. Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren’t millionaires; they’re retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They’re workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills. They’re immigrants who came here because they were stuck in poverty in the countries where the government dominated the economy.
The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security.
So, Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors, hard-working middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They need a plan to grow the middle class.
Economic growth is the best way to help the middle class. Unfortunately, our economy actually shrank during the last three months of 2012. But if we can get the economy to grow at just 4 percent a year, it would create middle-class jobs and it would reduce our deficits by almost $4 trillion over the next decade.
Tax increases can’t do this. Raising taxes won’t create private- sector jobs. And there’s no realistic tax increase that could lower our deficits by almost $4 trillion. That’s why I hope the president will abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy.
It was an effective rebuttal, and well delivered. Instead of trying to outdo Obama on government freebies, Rubio offered a clear explanation of why those promises won’t work, and most of them won’t even be tried. At the same time, Rubio reset the Republican approach to middle-class economics, a point not lost on Politico’s Jonathan Martin:
The selection of Rubio to speak for his party marked the latest, and perhaps most overt, step in the GOP’s rehabilitation project since Election Day, an effort to repackage its identity without altering its policies.
And at four separate moments in his remarks, Rubio went to great lengths to get the message across: The GOP isn’t the party of rich white guys. …
Later, Rubio returned to the personal, noting that he had to foot his own college bills. “When I finished school, I owed over $100,000 in student loans, a debt I paid off just a few months ago,” he said.
And ,if he hadn’t gotten his point across, Rubio came back to his class identity toward the end of his remarks in a paean to Medicare.
“It provided my father the care he needed to battle cancer and ultimately die with dignity,” said Rubio of government health insurance for the elderly. “And it pays for the care my mother receives now. “
And if you thought you heard a common phrase laced throughout the remarks, you did: “Middle-class” came in for 16 mentions.
Just for the record, Obama’s much-longer speech only had eight mentions of the “middle class.”
Rubio provided himself a good argument for his ascendancy as the public leader of the Republican Party, not just on policy but also on philosophy. I’d bet that Rubio’s speech gets remembered for its content longer than Obama’s SOTU retread.
That being said, the time to hydrate is before the cameras roll.