Political writers have come in for some not-unjustified criticism in the past few months for jumping the gun on the 2016 presidential race. With three years to go before the voters start voting and caucusing to choose the next Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, there is something to be said for keeping the horse race reporting about that long distant contest to a minimum. But on Tuesday night, it will be difficult to blame pundits for thinking ahead when two of the leading contenders for the GOP nod in 2016 will both be issuing official responses to the president’s State of the Union address. Florida Senator Marco Rubio will be delivering the official Republican response to President Obama immediately following the SOTU that will be carried by all the networks. But right after that, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will give the Tea Party response to the president in a talk that will be streamed on the website of the Tea Party Express group.
The idea of a Tea Party response to both the president and the Republican Party is a relatively recent addition to the ritual of the SOTU. But whatever the virtues of offering a third perspective to an American public that barely has the patience to sit through one speech, the only rationale for having Rand Paul respond to both Obama and Rubio is that he is hoping to exploit the opportunity to burnish his reputation as the true standard-bearer for the party’s base. Since both Rubio and Paul are products of the Tea Party and have stayed true to the movement’s principles on fiscal issues, the competition for the dwindling audience interested in Republican views late on Tuesday night must be considered the first debate of the 2016 primary season.
While the field of potential GOP presidential candidates is large and talented, Rubio and Paul are two of the most formidable. And though neither made as big a splash as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did this week by eating a donut on the David Letterman show, with Rubio’s appearance on the cover of TIME magazine as his party’s “savior” and Paul’s foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation, the Tuesday night match-up will heighten the impression that these two have already secured places in the top tier in the 2016 contest.
Paul’s insertion of himself into the SOTU speechifying is itself a bit of stretch if you consider that the idea of a Tea Party response was supposed to symbolize an alternative to the Republican establishment. Rubio was, after all, one of the movement’s success stories since he ran as a Tea Party insurgent against an establishment Republican in the 2010 Florida Senate primary and has stayed true to its credo by bucking the GOP leadership and voting against the fiscal cliff deal crafted by party leaders with Vice President Biden last month.
The main differences between Rubio and Paul are not on the spending and taxing issues that created the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010 in response to the Obama administration’s stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. They are instead about foreign policy. Rubio is an advocate of a strong defense and a robust pursuit of U.S. interests, including fighting the war on Islamist terrorists. Paul is moving away from the radical isolationism of his father to, as he stated in his Heritage speech, a stance that positions him as the candidate of the old GOP establishment “realists” that staffed the administration of the first President George Bush.
Paul is, as the New York Times reported today, the man who has inherited his father’s libertarian followers even as he also has tried to morph into a figure that the mainstream of the party can live with. That leaves plenty of room for disagreement with Rubio on issues where the latter is closer to mainstream Republicans, such as foreign policy issues like the alliance with Israel.
But the main differences between Rubio and Paul are about the latter’s appetite for massive cuts to the military via the sequester and military assistance to Israel (which Paul still opposes). On economic issues and entitlement reform as well as social issues and gun control, there isn’t much to choose between them. All of which leads us to wonder what exactly is the point of allowing Rand Paul to pose as the alternative to the official GOP response being delivered by a Tea Party stalwart except to highlight the personal rivalry between the two men.
We’ve a long way to go until the next presidential election, but no one should doubt that Tuesday night is the unofficial start to the 2016 race.