Marco Rubio’s selection to deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union cements the Florida senator’s role as a first-among-equals when it comes to the future leaders of the party, and sets up an intriguing dynamic over the next few years between Rubio and the man he almost certainly wants to replace.
That Congressional Republicans chose Rubio to carry the party’s flag is, frankly, not at all surprising. It’s no secret that Rubio is the single most marketable product in the Republican party today; he’s young (41 years old), Hispanic and conservative without being frightening to voters outside of the party base. He is also, without question, the most gifted communicator in the party — a natural ability that evokes, dare we write it, Barack Obama. (For more on Rubio’s abilities, check out the piece we wrote following his speech at the Republican National Convention speech.)
“He is the most natural communicator in our party since Reagan, and I’ve not said that of anyone before,” said Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Convention of Rubio. “When he speaks it’s like someone tapped a tuning fork. He just hums.”
Rubio is, to be blunt, the obvious choice — particularly with his recent leadership on a compromise immigration reform measure, a piece of legislation that is of massive import to the GOP’s future political prospects.
The more intriguing narrative that unspools from the choice of Rubio is how Tuesday night’s speech likely kicks off a period in which the GOP puts the Florida senator forward as its de facto foil to President Obama.
The simple truth is that the national Republican party lacks a leader at the moment, someone who can effectively articulate a counter-message to the one Obama is delivering to the country.
For much of 2011 and 2012 that role was occupied by House Speaker John Boehner thanks to the GOP’s majority in that chamber. But Boehner was always a bad fit.
First, Boehner’s prime concern was, is and always will be the care and feeding of what has become an increasingly conservative Republican majority in the House. Boehner’s messaging, therefore, was always calibrated to the 200+ House Republicans, not the American public writ large.
Second, Boehner isn’t — and, to his credit, doesn’t claim to be — a communicator on the level of Obama. He is blunt and occasionally short-tempered, traits that are of value when leading a group like House Republicans but are less useful when trying to re-brand the GOP for moderate and independent voters across the country.
Third, Boehner’s failure late last year to round up votes for his so-called “Plan B” during the fiscal cliff debate — a proposal that would have exempted all but those making $1 million or more from a tax increase — proved that he lacks the sort of control over his caucus required to lead it, let alone the Republican Party.
The leadership vacuum caused by Boehner’s struggles has contributed in no small part to the seemingly catch-as-catch-can approach the party has taken to its political tactics and strategy over the last few months.
On the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling, the party backed down for fear of picking a fight it couldn’t win with Obama. On immigration, a handful of Senate Republicans (including Rubio) looks to be moving forward but with no signoff from the House majority on the idea of a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
Enter (at least in theory) Rubio. In addition to his natural political skills, Rubio has also proven decidedly deft at navigating between the tea party and the GOP establishment during his brief time in the Senate. That decidedly rare skill — Boehner, Mitt Romney, John McCain and many others lack it — coupled with the sense that Rubio is the person best positioned to put a Republican back in the White House in 2016 — could well provide the momentum he needs to be the GOP’s answer, figuratively and literally, to President Obama.
Now, with all that said, it’s important not to overstate the import of the Republican State of the Union response. Most of these responses are forgotten almost as soon as they are delivered. And while the political world loves to cite Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s weak performance in 2009 as a sign of how much damage a poor speech can do, is there anyone who thinks Jindal’s prospects as a 2016 candidate have been materially affected by that speech?
What’s clear from Rubio’s selection as the State of the Union responder is that the national Republican Party both recognizes his ability and understands its own need to begin to elevate a national messenger to contend with President Obama over the next few years. Rubio has long been the expected inheritor of that role; his State of the Union response formalizes it.