February 12, 2013

Tonight Marco Rubio will offer the GOP’s lead rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union speech. The early Rubio rollout, offered up in a series of interviews, is not terribly encouraging. The Florida Senator is going to insist that the GOP is determined to offer an alternative to Obama’s agenda — even as he reprises warmed over critiques of Obama’s policies that we’ve been hearing for literally years now.

Rubio will tell us this:

“We don’t just want to be the opposition. We want to be the alternative.”

At the same time, Rubio will tell us that Obama’s agenda constitutes “big government.” As Rubio puts it to the Weekly Standard, he will tell us that “limited government, free enterprise is the best way to give people the opportunity to achieve a middle class lifestyle.” He will claim that “pro-growth” policies — not new revenues from the wealthy — are the key to reining in our fiscal problems.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve been hearing these arguments since the beginning of the Obama presidency and before. Rubio himself tells us that he wants the GOP to offer an “alternative.” But this alternative looks almost identical to the anything-but-Obama’s-policies, get-government-out-of-the-way rhetoric that was defeated soundly in the last election. As long as Republicans remain tied to reflexive government-is-bad rhetoric, they will struggle to articulate a positive role government can play in people’s lives.

Rubio will deal with this problem in an interesting way. He tells the Weekly Standard that he will claim that Obamacare and the President’s policies on the debt herald future disaster. This will allow Rubio, as he puts it, to argue that “we told you this wouldn’t work; here’s a better alternative.” Translation: Soon enough, you’ll all see that if we had refrained from implementing Obama’s policies, as Republicans warned we must, we’d all be better off. If this is the sum total of the policy “alternative” Rubio intends to offer, it won’t matter how upbeat his tone is; there will be nothing here.

Along those lines, this tidbit from the Standard interview may be the most revealing:

“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.

Rubio laughs. “That’s what we’re searching for,” he says. “We’re looking for a couple.”

Of course, majorities support many of the big ticket items in Obama’s second term agenda — from gun reforms such as universal background checks to infrastructure spending to protecting entitlements to a path to citizenship (which, his joking aside, Rubio supports, too). Republicans face a choice: They can continue opposing everything reflexively, or they can find ways of working with Obama and Democrats to find common ground and obtain at least some of what they want. But as Jonathan Bernstein notes, the latter requires articulating an actual policy agenda that is realistic and has a chance at developing some broad appeal, rather than simply betting that the current president’s policies will fail. The early returns suggest Rubio isn’t going to do that.

* Obama to “throw down the gauntlet” in SOTU speech: An encouraging report from Alexis Simendinger:

A White House official, speaking on background to reporters Monday about the State of the Union address, said Obama will “throw down the gauntlet” to Congress to pass laws that could help the middle class succeed, specifically in areas where bipartisan support makes action this year a question of “common sense.” Whether it’s spending on roads, bridges, ports and communications technology; or requirements for universal background checks for all gun purchasers; or a path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, the president will argue Tuesday night that lawmakers share enough common ground to select and pass sensible solutions this year.

It’s good to hear that Obama will renew the push for stimulus spending as a matter of “common sense.” Let’s hope he makes a strong case for Keynesian economics.

* Obama believes public opinion is on his side: Jackie Calmes has an interesting look at Obama’s new posture towards Republicans. It has evolved in three stages:

Mr. Obama largely bypassed them when Democrats controlled Congress, and then sought compromise once Republicans won control of the House, only to have the emboldened party refuse most deal-making with him. Now the president is defining a third stage in the relationship: He has the upper hand after voters chose his vision of government’s role and responsibilities over the opposition’s, and he is extending it on his terms.

As noted here yesterday, in articulating his vision of government, Obama is speaking more directly to the emerging coalition that elected him, and is ascendant as a share of the electorate: minorities, young voters, and college educated whites, particularly women.

* Even Dems overwhelmingly support drone strikes: One reason Obama is free to continue his drone strike program is that there’s no political downside of any kind: A new CBS poll finds that it is supported by 71 percent of Americans — and even 70 percent of Democrats. Even worse, there’s substantial support for drone strikes that target American citizens abroad suspected of terrorism: A plurality, 49 percent, backs this, as does a 48 percent plurality of Democrats.

As I’ve noted before, it’s hard to imagine Dems supporting such a policy in such numbers if it had been authored by George W. Bush.

* What will Obama say about climate change? CNN’s Brianna Keilar Tweets:

Pres. Obama will NOT announce regs on carbon emissions for existing power plants in the SOTU, per sr. admin official.

This will come as a bit of a disappointment to the environmental community, which was hoping for such an announcement (the administration is already cracking down on emissions from new plants, and a decision on existing plants is down the line). But if the President connects the dots between volatile weather and climate change, this will be broadly welcomed, because environmentalists want Obama to keep publicly talking up the issue.

* Obama allies to highlight GOP divisions: The Obama allied American Bridge is out with a new Web video highlighting the divisions between insurgent Tea Partyers and establishment Republicans over the future direction of the party. Worth watching: Whether Rand Paul, who is set to deliver the Tea Party response to the SOTU, will allude — subtly or not — to these differences.

* SOTU will highlight both sides of gun debate:  As you know, one House Republican is hosting Ted Nugent at tonight’s speech, a presence that will contrast sharply with the more than two dozen shooting victims and their families, not to mention Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, who will attend along with Democrats. Gun control advocates couldn’t have created better optics if they’d tried.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.