It’s telling that even the sponsor of Rand Paul’s scheduled Tea Party response to the State of the Union address went out of its way to try to avoid the impression that his speech will be a riposte to the official Republican reaction coming from Marco Rubio. The Tea Party Express’s announcement of Paul’s remarks noted that Rubio is also a Tea Party conservative. That concession puts into context the pitfalls for Paul in his decision to compete tonight with a fellow senator who may be his most formidable opponent in the race of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Though much of the commentary about Rubio’s decision to risk his reputation by giving the Republican response to Obama, few have discussed the fact that Paul is taking an even bigger risk.
Rubio is following in the footsteps of a long line of leading politicians who have flopped when given the opportunity to talk back to the president’s ceremonial address. As such, the rising star of the GOP is taking a big risk. It will take a brilliant speech and delivery by Rubio to come across as anything but a lame naysayer the way most of those who have been given this unenviable job have done. That he is willing to do so speaks well for his self-confidence. But if tomorrow’s stories about the SOTU are as much about how Rubio came across as the embodiment of the future of the Republicans with his message of individual empowerment as they are about Obama’s challenge to the GOP, the Florida senator will have given his party as well as his future presidential hopes a major boost.
But a similarly rational risk/reward ratio analysis for Paul’s decision to be the third wheel at the end of a long evening of speechifying isn’t as clear. The Kentucky senator has been working hard in recent months to establish himself as a leading figure in his party while bringing his libertarian views to a broader audience. Those who would dismiss him as merely a housebroken version of his father’s extremist libertarian faction are underestimating his smarts and his keen political instincts. But as much as Rubio is gambling by following in the footsteps of famous SOTU response disasters like Bobby Jindal, it’s not clear how Paul gains by being the successor to Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain, the two previous official Tea Party responders. Neither did their reputations any good by going third on SOTU night.
Had the GOP chosen more of an establishment figure or a less well-known politician than Rubio to give their answer to the president, Paul might have been in position to make a major splash with his Tea Party address. The contrast between Paul and a run of the mill member of Congress or Senator could have allowed him to pose as a lively and informed alternative to a party leadership that has often appeared to be dead from then neck up. But in Rubio he faces off against a man whose Tea Party credentials are not only as good as his but a better public speaker who is equipped to help bring minorities into a party that badly needs them.
As I noted on Sunday, Paul’s problem in following Rubio is that the differences between the two are mostly about tone and foreign policy and neither of those contrasts work in the Kentuckian’s favor.
Paul is a good speaker but it’s not likely that he can match Rubio when it comes to likeability or the appeal of his personal life story. And since both voted against the fiscal cliff compromise GOP party leaders embraced last month which was widely seen as a victory for President Obama, any comments Paul might have on opposing the administration’s push for more taxes with no real spending cuts will come across as a me too response to Rubio.
The only real contrast comes in foreign policy where Rubio is firmly in the Republican mainstream when it comes to supporting a strong defense and a robust war against Islamist terror while Paul calls for retrenchment and calls it “realism.” We dissected Paul’s foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation here but for another view that goes right to the heart of what was wrong with it, Will Inboden’s takedown of the speech at Foreign Policy is must reading. Inboden rightly rejects Paul’s pose as the standard bearer of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy as well as his embrace of George Kennan’s philosophy of containment and rightly tags him as the second coming of mid-19th century Ohio Senator Robert Taft. Taft was a principled Republican but both the Second World War and the need to resist Soviet expansionism during the Cold War discredited his non-interventionist foreign policy approach. Paul may think the time is right for a revival of such views but the looming crisis over the Iranian nuclear threat exposes him as hopelessly out of touch with America’s problems abroad.
The best that Rand Paul can hope for tonight is that he doesn’t wind up being ridiculed for an extremist performance while Rubio fails to impress. But a strong speech by Rubio will render Paul a marginal figure in the evening’s drama even if he does do well.
Paul may not have been able to resist the temptation to upstage a rival by speaking tonight. But though Rubio’s speech brings risks, they pale in comparison to those being run by Paul.