Where were Marco Rubio’s new ideas?

February 13, 2013

After an election, the winning party typically tries to pass the policies it campaigned on while the losers go back to the drawing board to try to work up a more appealing agenda. But last night's dueling speeches revealed, strangely, the reverse.


Rubio delivers the State of the Union response. (Washington Post)

President Obama's agenda has become much more ambitious since the election, ranging from universal pre-kindergarten to raising the minimum wage to gun control to immigration reform. But neither the Republican Party's agenda nor its rhetoric has changed a whit.

Ignore the awkward sip of water. That was shoddy advance work -- the water should've been closer! -- not poor oratory. Focus simply on the text. Marco Rubio's response to the State of the Union was like a greatest-hits album from the Romney campaign. If it's easy to imagine these words coming straight from Mitt Romney's mouth:

Presidents in both parties -- from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan -- have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity. But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.

It's because words very much like them often did:

One must ask whether we will still be a free enterprise nation and whether we will still have economic freedom. America is on the cusp of having a government-run economy. President Obama is transforming America into something very different than the land of the free and the land of opportunity.

Indeed, after the "47 percent" debacle, the Romney campaign tried to move on with a memo arguing that the choice in the election was "big government vs. free enterprise."

Americans, apparently, didn't agree. So it was surprising to see Rubio drilling deep into the same long-tapped wells:

When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather -- he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air.

No one suggests the government can control the weather. The argument -- which is thoroughly in line with market-based economics -- is that carbon can be priced to better reflect the harm it does to the environment. Republicans used to believe this, too. The first major cap-and-trade program was enacted by President George H.W. Bush to deal with sulfur dioxide, the culprit behind acid rain. And the first cap-and-trade proposal to limit carbon emissions was co-sponsored, as Obama mentioned in his speech last night, by Sen. John McCain.

When we suggest we strengthen our safety net programs by giving states more flexibility to manage them -- he accuses us of wanting to leave the elderly and disabled to fend for themselves.

There's an interesting argument over whether more state flexibility would improve our safety-net programs. But it's not the argument we're having. The various block-grant proposals put forward by, among others, Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan, and voted for by Marco Rubio, have all radically cut spending on the safety-net programs even as they turned them over to the states.

The consequence of spending far less on a program, like Medicaid, that spends much of its budget caring for the disabled elderly is that some of the disabled elderly will have to fend for themselves. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that block granting Medicaid would throw more than 20 million people off the program's rolls -- and that's before counting the millions more who would lose Medicaid coverage if the Affordable Care Act were repealed.

Rubio, here, falls into precisely the same trap that ensnared the Romney campaign: He doesn't want to defend the consequences of the Republican Party's policies, and he doesn't want to change the Republican Party's policies, so he simply denies the consequences of the Republican Party's policies.

And tonight, he even criticized us for refusing to raise taxes to delay military cuts -- cuts that were his idea in the first place.

Seriously? If the 2012 election was about anything, it was a referendum on whether we should reduce the deficit solely through spending cuts or take what Obama called a "balanced" approach -- one that includes taxes, too. The all-cuts approach lost. But Rubio's giving it another shot.

The same old rhetorical tricks and tropes were paired with the same old policies. Despite being the frontman for the GOP on immigration reform, he barely mentioned the issue, and when he did, he emphasized border security. He called for more energy exploration on federal lands and tax reform. He wants less debt and less spending, but the only actual spending cuts he mentioned were the sequester's cuts to defense -- and he opposed those.

I don't know why politician after politician accepts the thankless job of responding to the State of the Union. The best responses are barely decent, and the worst can do real damage to a rising star. But Rubio's response was particularly puzzling. He's trying to position himself as the future of the Republican Party. But his big speech evoked nothing but the past.

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Washington Post · February 13, 2013