Obama, Rubio, and Paul

The speeches given by President Barack Obama, Senator Marco Rubio, and Senator Rand Paul (delivering the Tea Party response) had some important contrasts in both style and substance.  Obama remains the most polished speaker of the three, but he’s also incredibly boring, at least for anyone who remembers him giving the same speech over and over again, both at State of the Union addresses and on the stump.  The thrust of Obama’s speech is that he’s going to double down on everything that already failed, from Solyndra boondoggles to, amazingly enough, the same sort of risky subprime loans that created the 2008 financial crisis.  That was actually the only interesting part of Obama’s speech.  The parts where he claimed to have slashed spending, fixed the deficit, and created a zillion jobs were garden-variety crazy, but the return of the subprime mortgage is dangerous, and therefore intriguing.

All of Obama’s practiced cadences, false arguments, “those who say” straw men, and hollow promises remain largely unchanged, as does the rhetoric he uses to deliver them.  We got a new variation on “evil rich guys are making big profits and robbing you blind” every few minutes.  If he’d dragged out his old whine about corporate jets and job-killing ATM machines, it would have been a perfect time capsule of his first term.  Shades of his previous call for a “Sputnik moment,” he even mentioned the Space Race!  (As a metaphor for Big Government “investment,” of course – he killed the actual space program.)  Barack Obama is like a “Jurassic Park” DNA reincarnation of himself.

The man who has no plan assured us that deficit reduction is not an economic plan.  He started by claiming, with false modesty, that he doesn’t think the government is the solution to every problem… then spent an hour listing all the problems it can solve, at fantastic expense.  And his trillions in new spending programs supposedly won’t increase the deficit a dime, which means he’d pay for them entirely with tax hikes and spending offsets… but the government doesn’t do budgets any more, and no one can seriously believe he’d cut any of this bloated government to pay for the new stuff, especially since he spent much of the evening insisting that every dollar he’s currently spending is absolutely vital to the survival of the hopelessly dependent middle class.  He wants to dump millions of low-skilled, freshly legalized immigrant workers into his moribund economy… and then raise the minimum wage, killing off the jobs they would need.  There’s no way to make sense of everything he threw out there, except to remember that it’s basically the same

Rubio was nervous, leading to the infamous water-bottle sip that liberals are already fixating on as the end of his presidential hopes.  That’s nonsense, although in the short term it will hurt him more than his admirers probably want to admit.  Didn’t we all just receive a stunning lesson on the superficiality of this electorate?  But Rubio has a great sense of humor, and was joshing about the water bottle within minutes of the speech.  Laughter is strong armor against such moments.  But let the incident serve as a reminder that Republicans can’t keep skimping on the little details.  You’d think they needed no further lessons in that, either.

It should be noted that Rubio doubtless saw himself racing a much tougher timetable than Obama for his speech.  The President in general, and this one in particular, doesn’t have to worry about going overtime.  He’s got a big crowd feeding him encouragement.  He can compose himself during applause breaks.  I don’t know why the SOTU has to be given in an isolated room, with an unblinking camera as the speaker’s only visible audience.  Maybe they should break tradition and do it with a live audience next time.

Leave the jitters aside, and Rubio delivered a masterful speech, as did Rand Paul.  They hit on some common themes, including immigration reform (with Paul discussing the pathway to citizenship in more general terms) and school choice.  Both of them seized upon Obama’s poll-tested but meaningless line about government not being the solution to all problems, and infused it with Ronald Reagan’s wisdom that government is the cause of many problems.  In fact, Paul quoted Reagan directly on the point.  That’s a huge difference with Obama’s vision of consistently helpful government, which might not be able to handle everything, but it can sure take care of the really expensive stuff.

Rubio covered this theme with gentle Reaganesque good humor; Paul used a lively sarcasm that might connect well with a 2013 public that has come to value such acid wit as a sign of confidence.  In fact, Paul’s approach tracks more closely with that of Obama, who conceals a good bit of sarcasm between the layers of freeze-dried soaring rhetoric in his addresses.  How else to describe Obama’s constant insinuation that his opponents must want a befouled environment, impoverished Americans rooked by greedy corporate predators, and dead children?  As Rubio put it, “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.”

Both Rubio and Paul spoke of a balanced budget amendment, with Paul making more specific demands, including the “Penny Plan” to eliminate the deficit in six or seven years by cutting a penny out of each dollar the government spends.  That’s going to sound very reasonable to voters; it’s tough for Big Government acolytes like Obama to insist that no, government needs every last penny it spends, and then some.  (Along those lines, Paul even slipped in a crack about the “free phones” that made big news today, due to outrageous levels of fraud in the program.)  Rubio also talked about fiscal restraint, but placed great emphasis on resolving the deficit through growth.

Paul was tough on Republicans, too, bemoaning the lack of ready allies from either side of the aisle in his quest to cut spending, and laying a share blame at the feet of Republicans for their role in accumulating the national debt.  That might make some of his GOP colleagues grumble – old political hands sometimes wonder if anyone ever really got anywhere by running against his own party, and the Democrats are perfectly angelic in Barack Obama’s view.  But it’s also (a) true, and (b) the sort of no-nonsense concession that resonates with voters who are tired of partisan games.  Which, to hear the voters talk, is just about all of them.

Paul dug deep into history, expounding on our Constitutional history and name-checking Montesquieu.  Rubio was the guy next door, telling the President, “I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich.  I oppose your plans because I want to protect your neighbors.”  There is much to be said for both approaches, as they tend to reach different groups of people.  Rubio is approachable and inspiring, while also taking care of the fine points – he reminded viewers that Big Government policies caused the subprime mortgage crisis, and that Obama insisted on the sequestration cuts he now rails against.

Paul is tough and erudite, but he can also rise to poetry: “We will begin to thrive again when we begin to believe in ourselves again, when we regain our respect for our founding documents, when we balance our budget, when we understand that capitalism and free markets and free individuals are what creates our nation’s prosperity.”  It’s nice to hear someone talk about capitalism as the blessing it is.  After a long night watching all three speeches, I can say with confidence that I live the America Marco Rubio cherishes and Rand Paul defends, not the one Barack Obama wants to finish transforming.