Rubio Repeats a Failed Message

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(The Root) — Time magazine tells me that Marco Rubio is "the Republican Savior." If his response to Barack Obama's State of the Union is any indication of his potential on the national stage, then Hillary Clinton should start practicing the oath of office tomorrow. It was not merely a weak response; it was, in fact, an awful little speech, which did no more than slightly tweak a failed message.


Let's be fair. Rubio faced at least two major challenges last night. First, Barack Obama gave what I regard as the second-best speech of his national political career. Only his 2008 "A More Perfect Union" race speech in Philadelphia outranks this State of the Union. Barack Obama has his mojo back. If there was any doubt, all such reservations have been laid to rest. Republicans had better get ready, because this re-elected president is sure enough ready to lead and to take it to his opposition.

His second challenge was the House Republicans, a group that contains elements that make sensible, practical compromise with this rejuvenated president exceedingly difficult.

And the Republican leadership, as epitomized by Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio, is apparently totally tone-deaf. There were two critical moments when Boehner should have risen in unison with Vice President Joe Biden to applaud the president, and he, shockingly, remained planted in his chair.

The first was when Obama called for putting the national interest ahead of partisan interest. Boehner sat emotionless. I'm sure the vast majority of Americans, irrespective of party, agree with the sentiment Obama expressed. But Boehner's body language implied that he was fully ready to put party interest ahead of national interest. Not good symbolism, Mr. Speaker.

The next moment came when Obama extolled the contributions of striving, hopeful immigrants and called for comprehensive immigration reform. Biden rose. Boehner sat stone-faced — astonishing, quite frankly, in light of Republican challenges with Latino voters. As a lawyer might say, res ipsa loquitur! The thing speaks for itself.

Given that the president is more in tune with the wavelength of the American people, and since Rubio's own party is constrained (and arguably defined) by extremists in its own ranks, the Florida senator had an exceedingly difficult needle to thread in responding to Obama. He faced a big challenge. What did we get?


I have to be honest about this: We got an embarrassingly weak recitation of stale Republican jargon about taxes, debt burdens and the virtues of free enterprise. He attempted to cast Obama as "obsessed" with raising taxes and vastly expanding government. I don't think any but the most ideologically extreme right-wingers believe that was the message Obama delivered. Yet this is what Rubio claimed. It was remarkably disconnected from the real words spoken by Obama and the reality that most Americans are living through.

There were moments when Rubio attempted to connect with hardworking Americans, with immigrants — indeed, with anyone who believes in the American dream. These efforts were variously hollow, contradictory or executed far more effectively by Obama. He criticizes government programs and spending, yet admits that his own education required government-backed loans and his parents' health care was totally dependent on Medicare.


Obama offered specific strategies for reform. Rubio and the Republicans replied with vague claims about never hurting those on Medicare while somehow making debt reduction the paramount priority. Say what, Marco?

It was as if a Mitt Romney speechwriter had taken control of android Rubio and said, "Well, with one more reiteration — now delivered by a young, nonbillionaire Latino — our 2012 campaign message will finally carry the day." It didn't. Not even close. It didn't work in November and does not work now. Rubio certainly was not a competitive challenge to the clarity, commonsense quality and fundamentally reasonable tone of Obama's address.


Rubio seems a talented and ambitious young politician. He may have ideas of his own and a message for America that will ultimately have some traction. If so, almost none of those qualities were on display last night. This is too bad.

It seems he does deserve some real credit for the compromise immigration-reform measure now under consideration in Washington. But this speech did nothing to elaborate on those ideas or really signal that they were a priority for Republicans. The speech did not signal that he would be an effective standard-bearer for a refashioned Republican Party. Instead, it proved only that Rubio can recite the worn-out partisan slogans of the last decade or so.


In contrast, Obama signaled unambiguously in this speech that he has mastered his message, in the fashion of a previous Great Communicator. If Republicans insist on extreme positions, Obama is clearly willing to call them on it in a direct, homespun fashion that he resisted in his first term. And if Rubio's response to the State of the Union is any indication, the Republicans really have not fashioned any convincing response to this reborn president. I'm OK with that. Are you?

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.