President Obama’s State of the Union Address might have been the biggest political event Tuesday night, but there were two other speeches that mattered a good deal as well. Florida Senator Marco Rubio delivered the traditional opposition response to the president, while Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (son of Ron, peace be upon him and audits be upon his enemies) delivered the Tea Party response. Both of these candidates are rising stars within their parties, so having them deliver rival Republican rebuttals on the same night is no small deal. Rubio’s speech got much more attention – Paul’s didn’t even get serious cable coverage – but the two speeches were nonetheless powerful symbols of the split within the ranks of the Republican party.
Marco Rubio’s big moment came first. For many Americans, this was their introduction to the 41-year-old senator, and it was clear that Rubio intended to make the most of it. With his typical awful combover largely covered up, Rubio stood in a room that looked quite a bit like the Oval Office, looked straight into the camera and began the first speech of the rest of his life. And as political first impressions go, it wasn’t all that bad. It was clear he was nervous – he was gesticulating more than an old Italian man in, well, every single movie featuring old Italian men – but he didn’t let it get to the point of distraction. His semi-Southern accent and business class demeanor blunted his sharper attacks, and he even handled water-gate (which, incidentally, is sure to be considered one of the greatest political moments of the year, not to mention an internet sensation) smoothly and with a sense of humor.
One thing was clear above all else: Rubio knew exactly why Mitt Romney lost the election last fall. Poll after poll showed Romney tied with or ahead of President Obama on issues of economics, but Obama swamped him in the all-important category of empathy that Bill Clinton mastered so well. Romney never felt Americans’ pain. Rubio did everything in his power to show that he did. On the issue of education, he brought up the topic of his student loans. While talking about Medicare, he mentioned his family, including an especially powerful pitch about how he would never want to hurt a system that his own mother relied on. The message might not have changed from the GOP’s in 2012 (with the exception of immigration), but the messenger was far more competent, and keenly aware of how to sell his beliefs.
The speech didn’t sound like a defense of conservatism. Instead, it was a defense of the citizen, the all-American hard worker – you, essentially – from a government that’s well-meaning but ultimately too big and clunky to work the way it should. That’s the pitch Reagan used to completely redefine the role of the federal government in the American political universe, and in his attempt to recreate it, Rubio showed he knew what he was doing. The speech wasn’t perfect – he unnecessarily defended former president George W. Bush, went a little too far on climate change, came out in support of a balanced budget amendment that would be an absolute disaster if passed and was desperately lacking specifics – but it did the job well enough, even if it might be overshadowed in the short term by his thirsty moment.
Rand Paul went in the completely opposite direction. While Rubio talked about the American citizen, Paul was a Paul to the end. He didn’t waste time relating to people, instead getting straight to the fiscally conservative point. Sure, he touched on the platitudes all politicians have to use, but he did so sparingly and without the compassion that Rubio employed so effectively. While Rubio tried to talk to conservatives and moderates alike, Paul bolted to the right without looking back. This was not to say that Rubio was a paragon of centrism – his support for a balanced budget amendment is nowhere near middle-of-the-road – but Paul went above and beyond the Floridian by not only saying that he supported the sequester, but that the sequester didn’t even go far enough. Rand wasn’t afraid of skewering establishment Republicans on military spending either, while Rubio chose to take aim solely at Obama and the Democrats.
For those fans of his father who were starting feel a little rustled by Paul the Younger’s hawkish overtures, this speech was a refreshing reminder that at heart, Rand Paul was still one of them. Too much of a good thing can be trouble, however, and one part in particular of Paul’s base-outreach went down the wrong way. As a small aside on the issue of school choice, he brought up how President Obama’s daughters are able to go to the school they want and tied it into his broader argument. Regardless of what you believe, going after the President’s kids is not OK. It’s unethical, it’s kind of stupid (the President’s daughters should get special treatment, considering, you know, they’re the President’s daughters and there are countless wackos out there who would want to murder them) and it’s a political clunker. Plus, Wayne LaPierre already tried that, and it wasn't pretty. These quick remarks in the middle of a long address aren’t going to do any damage to Paul, but the attitude that led to their inclusion could.
Paul’s biggest weakness, however, was not his lack of empathy or his sideswipe at two teenage girls. It was the fact that when it came down to it, this speech was boring. Maybe not a Pawlenty-level snorefest, but it was dull enough that even the most diehard political junkies found themselves zoning out. Paul plodded along in a syrupy voice, without passion or power, for 14 long minutes.
Responding to the State of the Union is a risky proposition – just ask Bobby Jindal. It requires following up one of the toughest warmup acts in political theater and allows maybe twenty minutes at the absolute max to refute the leader of the free world, usually without an audience to cheer you on. Jindal may have been the biggest disaster, but he’s certainly not the only one. The State of the Union response has left many ambitious politicians looking awkward and uncomfortable in what is for many of them their first time alone in the national spotlight. Rubio had his shaky moments, and Paul sounded a little like a voiceover in an ad for a Florida retirement home, but neither speech fully flopped and Rubio successfully earned himself a bigger place on the national stage, even if he might be forever synonymous with Poland Springs.