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.’”
Rubio will also counter Obama’s anticipated proposals on energy, education, the economy, and debt – offering specific contrasts meant to provide a starkly different policy agenda from the one offered by the president. On debt, one of several areas in which Rubio believes the president is a failed leader, he wants to recast the familiar GOP argument. “The goal is growth,” he says, arguing that with pro-growth policies the federal government could generate an additional $4 trillion in revenues over the next decade, “more than any tax hike” under consideration. Rubio also wants to take arguments about debt from the theoretical and the long-term to the immediate and the short-term. “I think we have to link the debt to their lives. People understand that we have this debt and that their kids are going to get saddled with this in the future. And I think that’s a compelling argument. But I think an even more compelling argument, in conjunction with that one, is to explain to people how the debt is hurting them right now.”
“The debt has a direct impact on unemployment. Ever dollar that is being lent to the government is a dollar that is not being invested in our economy,” he says. “The immediate danger of the debt, and the one that speaks to people in the real world, is the fact that the debt is contributing to the fact that they don’t have a good job.”
Rubio, who has been in the news quite a bit lately talking up immigration reform, will raise the issue in the context of economic growth and opportunity. And while he will mention immigration this evening, it won’t dominate his appearance. Over the past several weeks, Rubio has run the conservative talk radio circuit in an attempt to sell that sizable chunk of the conservative movement on reform. While his principles for reform have been met with mixed reviews, with several pointing out a softening of the position he campaigned on three years ago, he’s mostly won praise even from those who don’t agree with him on the policy.
But Rubio’s remarks will likely provide a contrast to the president in other ways, too – particularly on tone. Rubio’s speech, expected to run between twelve and fifteen minutes, will be broad and upbeat. Leaks from the White House about Obama’s speech suggest it will be “combative” and “aggressive” and “specific.” Rubio’s response won’t be soft – he intends to lay out for the American people exactly how the president attacks his opponents and mischaracterizes their arguments. And Rubio will be blunt about how he views Obama’s idea of America. “On issue after issue – there is virtually no problem in America that he thinks doesn’t have a government answer, from concussions in football to the weather.”
Rubio’s remarks will be personal, sharing stories he’s heard from friends, relatives, and constituents to translate esoteric Washington policy debates into solutions for the day-to-day problems that Americans are having. Rubio will talk in some detail about the American dream – not as an ill-defined concept popular in modern political rhetoric, but in terms of what it means to the parent of a newborn who sees in his child the promise of a great country. He will attempt to speak to those Americans who are concerned about the current state of the union and despondent about its future. And even in a time of despair for his party, Rubio is determined to be optimistic – about the country, about its politics and even about the prospect of agreement with an increasingly intransigent president.
“We’re not just here to block everything the president’s for,” Rubio insists. “We’re not against everything the president’s for, we’re only against the bad ideas.”
Which of the president ideas does Rubio think are the good ones, I wonder.
“That’s what we’re searching for,” he says. “We’re looking for a couple.”