From the earliest days of Marco Rubio’s plucky campaign for the U.S. Senate, his diehard supporters spoke of the day that their man would have an opportunity to challenge Barack Obama – his policies, his vision, his rhetoric. They were certain that Rubio was so gifted an orator and possessed such a unique set of political skills that he would be able to make immediate and improbable leaps that most politicians could not execute. And it was obvious to them – this group the Rubio campaign hands called “three-percenters” because they were there in the days when their candidate was at just 3 percent in an early public poll – that the former Florida house speaker would belong on such an elevated platform.
He’s there now.
Rubio will deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address tonight. It’s a difficult assignment – no one is actually on par with the president of the United States and several recent responders have struggled. But it’s one that certifies Rubio as one of the chief spokesmen for the Republican party – and for good reason. He is the best communicator in the GOP at a time when Republicans have struggled notably to sell their message.
In a thirty-minute interview in his Senate office late last week, I reminded Rubio that several of those who preceded him have failed. “Oh, thanks,” he says, laughing. “I haven’t thought about it that way. I guess if you don’t want the ball in your hands with the last thirty seconds in the game, you probably don’t belong in this game anyway.”
Rubio’s plan to “respond” to the president is rather straightforward. (He’s not actually responding to anything, of course, as his remarks are prepared well in advance of the president’s speech.) He will provide a contrast to the president in ways that are both obvious and subtle. Rubio says he intends to draw on his personal experiences growing up in Florida to explain to the country why Obama’s policies won’t work. The president has focused too much of our national discussion demonizing those who have had success, Rubio says, and paid too little attention to those trying to make it. He seeks to shift that emphasis with his remarks tonight – from a politics of class warfare to policies that elevate the middle class.
“The way I envisioned it is, I kind of went back to the people that I know [back] home,” Rubio explains, “whether it’s my friends from high school, or parents that I know from my kids’ school or kids’ teams, and if I had an opportunity to sit in front of them and if they gave me fifteen minutes to explain to them why it was that what the president wants to do is not a good idea and why what we want to do is a better idea – what would I say to them? And that’s how I’ve approached the speech – is to explain why it is that limited government, free enterprise is the best way to give people the opportunity to achieve a middle class lifestyle or more and leave their kids better off than themselves.”
To that end, Rubio will argue that there are costs to big government that may not seem evident in the lives of every day Americans. Among other things, he will focus on the president’s health care reform and the many failed promises that implementation of those policies will mean. It is not true, Rubio says, that those who want to keep their doctors and their insurance plans will be able to do so. And the tax dollars that are collected to fund Obamacare are dollars that will not be spent elsewhere in the economy. The challenges of Obamacare for business – particularly those small businesses with employees near the magic “50 employee” threshold for Obamacare regulations – will be extraordinary. The goal, Rubio says, is to make clear to Americans that Republicans opposed these policies and to preview the coming disaster.
“I wish we could avoid it,” he says. “But if we can’t, we have to at least have the credibility to say: ‘We told you this wouldn’t work; here’s a better alternative.’”