Rubio's Big Moment Fizzles

The GOP entrusts its rebuttal to Obama's speech to a fresh face, but the same old ideas.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Washington Post commentator Jonathan Capehart summed up the Republican Party's strange demographic quandary on his blog the other day: It's a party of "white people" that is about to be led by people of color. Among the Hispanic and Asian-American politicos emerging as potential future standard bearers for the GOP are Ted Cruz, the newly elected Texas senator, Govs. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada. And last, but certainly not least, there is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Cuban-American phenom whom Time magazine has already anointed as his party's savior.

Well, after watching Rubio deliver the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union message last night, all I can say is, don't believe the hype. 

Rubio is a good-looking, charismatic speaker who connects effectively when he talks about his rise from modest roots as the son of immigrants who fled Castro's Cuba. But, with the important exception of Rubio's support for the reform of immigration, the policies he espouses are the same old stuff we've been hearing from Republican ideologues since the heyday of Ronald Reagan.

These clichéd attacks on Democrats' supposed love of big government and higher taxes will not become any more attractive to the nation's increasingly multicolored electorate simply because they are delivered by a Hispanic spokesman. The GOP's problem is its message, not the complexion of its messenger.

To listen to Rubio last night, you'd forget that it has only been a few months since Obama decisively defeated a candidate who espoused the same approach that Rubio put forward. "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," Rubio declared. "But President Obama? He believes it's the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn't tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more." He might have been channeling Mitt Romney.

In fact, Obama has espoused a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, raising revenues and cutting spending -- and Rubio knows that. He also knows that it is easier to make fantastic claims about how well his ideas would work than it is to square them with the facts. 

"If we can get the economy to grow at just 4 percent a year, it would create millions of middle-class jobs. And it could reduce our deficits by almost $4 trillion dollars over the next decade," said Rubio. What he did not say is that the last time the U.S. enjoyed such a rapid rate of growth was in 1995 when Democrat Bill Clinton was in the White House, and taxes were higher than they are today. It was under Republican George Bush's policies that we fell into the hole out of which we're still digging.

At one point during his talk, Rubio paused to slurp down some water. Maybe he was feeling nervous. Maybe the TV lights were too hot. Maybe he realized that his message wasn't really going over. Perhaps he realized that is easier to be called a savior than it is to lead your flock into the promised land.

Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor for The Root.

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