Water bottles aside, the rebuttal Senator Marco Rubio delivered last week after the State of Union Address was notable—and a letdown—for several reasons.
Let’s start with the positive notables first, about the speech and Rubio himself. It was the first response to ever be delivered in both Spanish and English. Rubio is bypassing other norms, too. He’s Twitter savvy, and unlike some of his Republican predecessors, knows how to use new media to effectively connect to his base. He also purportedly understands the concept of street swag—he’s able to discuss the finer points of the Tupac vs. Biggie rivalry.
His performance last Tuesday wouldn’t necessarily lead one to believe he’s charismatic. But, his charisma and appeal are, in fact, big reasons he’s a rising star in the Republican Party. The likable son of Cuban immigrants is a far cry from the old guy, white picket fence types of candidates Republicans have chosen in the last few presidential elections. That’s refreshing to see from the liberal perspective, and certainly strategically necessary for the party’s survival.
But behind his likable façade, how much substance is there to Rubio? Does he really have the potential to expand the Republican electorate? Should he be looked at as a formidable threat to a Democratic candidate if he decides to run in 2016? Even though I want to focus on this for as long as possible, it’s important to recognize the political potency Rubio could build up in the next few years. Much of that power will come from his persona. But hopefully, his compelling background story, charm and personality will only take him so far and we’ll be forced to more seriously consider the policy and ideology that lies within.
The substance of Rubio’s State of the Union rebuttal is a good place to start. Historically, a substantial number of politicians who deliver the speech are on the brink of major success. Out of the 119 politicians preceding Rubio, 24 went on to run for president. Historically speaking, that means we should take note of Rubio just for being chosen by his party for the task, regardless of how he performed.
What we got Tuesday night was effectively no divergence from the Republican Party we’re familiar with from the past few elections. He relies on much of the same Republican scare tactics and one-liners. At the end of the day, they just don’t carry that much meaning, or offer anything new to someone the Republican party may be trying to lure over to the right.
“Many government programs that claim to help the middle class often end up hurting them instead.” “The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families.” “Every dollar our government borrows is money that isn’t being invested to create jobs.”
Rubio did not even capitalize on the one issue where he could be a true standout: immigration. He talked about his family’s background, but only addressed the issue at a policy level once. Moreover, he did not propose any solution, merely noting the problem and moving on. “We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally,” he said. The framing of the issue was also interesting. Instead of presenting immigration as its own political issue, he tied it to the economy: “We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system…”
Rubio may be a fresh face. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, rhetorically and policy-wise he’s more of the same. And that could be highly problematic if the Party is counting on him as a strong weapon in its arsenal.