Republicans chose Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a fresh face in their party, to respond to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.
But if the messenger was new, the message Rubio offered was back-to-basics, a recommitment of the party to traditional conservative notions of economic growth.
He argued that low taxes, limited regulations and smaller government would free the economy from the shackles of big government that he contended Obama offered in his address.
But the senator from Florida focused sharply on how such conservative ideas could boost the middle class and improve people’s lives, part of a new effort by Republicans to more clearly connect their vision with the everyday problems of ordinary Americans.
“Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” Rubio said. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors: hardworking, middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government.”
The new push comes after a campaign year in which Democrats successfully branded the GOP as champions of the wealthy.
Convinced that Obama would retain the unapologetically liberal tone of last month’s inaugural address in the State of the Union speech, Rubio offered no sense of a party humbled by its November losses, instead advancing a strong defense of Republican values.
He called for a balanced-budget amendment to force Washington to reduce spending and accused Obama of an “obsession” with raising taxes rather than tackling growing deficits through spending cuts or economic growth.
Rubio was carefully chosen by House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to serve as a friendlier, hipper and more inclusive fighter for their cause at a time when the party is looking to soften its image.
At 41, the Cuban American first-termer is savvy about social media, is conversant in rap music and pop culture, and has worried publicly about the difficulties of balancing work and fatherhood.
In a State of the Union first, he delivered versions of his party’s response in English and Spanish.
And he offered a particularly personal response, talking of his immigrant upbringing. In calling for changes to curb the growth of Medicare, Rubio invoked the care his father received through the program while dying of cancer and noted that his mother remains enrolled.
“Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren’t millionaires. They’re retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare,” he said.
He added: “The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs.”
The response to the State of the Union offered the possible 2016 presidential contender a moment of national exposure unlike any except his widely well-received speech at last year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa.
It also presented risks. Only responses that are awkward or shaky — notably Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s stilted 2009 speech from the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge — are widely remembered.
Rather than reaching for a creative or unusual setting, Rubio went low-key, delivering his nearly 15-minute address from Boehner’s conference room at the U.S. Capitol, not far from the House chamber where Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress.
The location was a reminder that though Democrats may hold the White House, a Republican occupies one of Washington’s most powerful offices, presiding over the House of Representatives.
Rubio’s tone was confident as he delivered the remarks. But about halfway through, he appeared to suffer a bout of dry mouth and, in a made-for-Twitter moment, twice wiped his lips and then awkwardly paused, reaching far off camera for a bottle of water.
Several of Rubio’s fellow Republicans in Congress said they found Obama’s tone on Tuesday more bipartisan than in the inaugural address a few weeks ago, suggesting that the president offered them possible bipartisan solutions on tax reform, trade and energy.
But most Republicans rebuffed Obama’s call for legislation to implement universal preschool and a $9-an-hour minimum wage, saying such programs would be overly expensive. “Another recipe for big government,” said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.).
“It sounded like a Christmas list to me,” Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) said. “The question is, how do you pay for [preschool] in every state, how do you pay for $9 an hour?”
Rubio used his speech to offer new conservative ideas on education, part of the GOP’s effort to expand the party’s focus beyond debt and deficits — what Jindal dismissively referred to recently as an “obsession with zeroes.”
The senator called for expanding private choices for primary school children and new financial aid for nontraditional college and graduate school students. He said that additional federal lands should be opened to energy exploration and that Congress should overhaul the tax code, not to raise new revenue — as Obama seeks — but to lower rates.
Rubio has shifted to the party’s forefront in recent weeks because of his central role in a bipartisan group of eight senators working on a proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
But he mentioned that issue only briefly, calling for a “responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally” — but insisting first on new enforcement and border security.
And he offered a terse response to Obama’s emotional call for new gun-control measures. “We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country,” the senator said, declaring all Americans “heartbroken” over the recent Newtown, Conn., school shooting. “But,” he added, “unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.”
In a stark reminder of the deep divisions within a rebuilding Republican Party, Rubio’s official GOP response was followed by a speech by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) sponsored by the Tea Party Express, a conservative political action committee.
It was the third year in a row in which a tea party group has sponsored a State of the Union response.
The tea party response served as a special rebuke because it put Paul, another possible 2016 contender, head to head with Rubio, who ran in 2010 with strong tea party support.
In his speech, Paul took both parties to task for spending too much and called on Congress to allow the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1 to go ahead, despite a hit to the Pentagon that has many Republicans worried.
“It is time for a new bipartisan consensus: It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud,” Paul said.
But, like Rubio, he said the Republican Party must be more welcoming to immigrants who come to the United States to work and want to become American citizens.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.