Judging Marco Rubio’s performance in his official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union depends upon whether you think satire outweighs substance and style. There is little doubt that Rubio’s case of dry mouth will be endlessly mocked in the days, weeks and even years to come. Television comics will ruthlessly parody his hurried grab for a drink in the middle of the speech. But it would be a mistake to think his on camera water break will come to define the speech or his future presidential hopes.
But take the big gulp out of the equation and what you are talking about is easily the best response to a State of the Union speech since the genre was invented. Rubio’s authentic invocation of his immigrant roots combined with an articulate and passionate argument about opportunity struck exactly the right tone for a Republican Party that is in desperate need of a reboot. Rubio’s persona was, as it always is, intensely likeable as well as informed. Though liberals jibed that his talk was merely a repackaging of traditional conservative themes, that shouldn’t be considered an insult. In Rubio, the GOP has a spokesman who can champion the middle class and immigrants while speaking to the core values of conservatism that still resonate with most Americans. Though the skewering he’ll get over his water problem reduces the impact of his showing, he survived a thankless task with his reputation as one of his party’s leading contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination intact.
There is something to be said for the thesis that Republicans need more than a good spokesman in order to compete in the future. But in Rubio, the GOP has more than fresh and articulate face. His ability to speak calmly and rationally about why the president’s soak the rich effort is not just a matter of good marketing. To listen to many in the mainstream liberal media, President Obama’s narrow yet clear victory last November means liberalism is ascendant and conservatism is dead. But the notion that Americans are really prepared to double down on another stimulus boondoggle and sink the country further into debt is one that the election results can’t entirely sustain.
That leaves an opening for a conservative who can combine common sense about the government’s spending problem with an optimistic pro-growth message. That is why Rubio’s speech — Gunga Din jokes notwithstanding — gives him a leg up on 2016.
The comparison with the other Republican responder also won’t hurt Rubio.
Rand Paul’s Tea Party response to the State of the Union got even less attention that it might have otherwise gotten because of the cable networks decision to switch to coverage of the hunt for the California gunman. None of the networks covered Paul’s speech live and watching it online via the Tea Party Express website was hit or miss for many viewers.
But the problem with Paul’s speech went further than its minimal exposure. He welcome the sequester cuts that most Americans don’t like. He even advocated deeper cuts in defense spending that libertarians will like but not most Republicans. His libertarian base will cheer this but it’s not clear that is a path to winning mainstream GOP support in 2016.
Rubio will take his lumps about his dry mouth but no one can argue that his speech was not effective. It was not the unadulterated triumph it might have been absent his thirst, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t look back three years from now and see this is a moment when Rubio solidified his rip on a spot in the first tier of GOP presidential candidates.