Before Marco Rubio lurched for a pint-sized bottle of Poland Spring on national television, and before bored journalists on Twitter erupted with hallelujahs and gleeful gifs, the senator from Florida was in the midst of delivering a response to President Obama's State of the Union address that was meant to showcase not only Rubio himself, but the Republican Party's agenda as its seeks to bounce back from a demoralizing defeat in November. Rubio handled his Watergate with about as much aplomb as any politician could muster — he told ABC News this morning that "God has a funny way of reminding us we're human." But what about the speech itself, which amounted to a well-executed broadside on big government? Let's say it received only a mixed response from the pundit gallery.
Opinions were, of course, divided along ideological lines. Liberals saw parts of his speech — such as when he claimed that the financial crisis was caused by the government, or that government shouldn't take steps to curb climate change — as more evidence that the GOP is painfully out of touch with reality. "If there's a single line that encapsulates the mindless anti-government doggerel that characterized Marco Rubio's response to the State of the Union address it was his flip dismissal of any government response to climate change, because 'our government can't control the weather,'" says Jonathan Chait at New York. As for the idea that the government caused the financial crisis, as opposed to private Wall Street banks that made a killing on subprime loans, the idea "is simply idiotic," says Steve Benen at The Maddow Blog.
Some conservatives, however, welcomed Rubio's attempt to shed the GOP's reputation as a defender of the wealthy by underscoring his family's humble roots. "To this point, the substance of Rubio's rebuttal was very good," says Pete Hegseth at National Review. "His 'we're not the party of the rich' message is badly needed, as is his central focus on equal opportunity."
Indeed, fans of Rubio's speech largely support the idea that the Republican Party's problems stem mostly from messaging and optics, rather than from the core tenets of its ideological philosophy. "[The speech] was as much an exercise in erasing Mitt Romney's legacy on the Republican Party as it was a traditional response to" Obama's address, says Jonathan Martin at Politico. "The selection of Rubio to speak for his party marked the latest, and perhaps most overt, step in the GOP's rehabilitation project since Election Day, an effort to repackage its identity without altering its policies."
And that stuck in the craw of several moderate conservative commentators who want to see the GOP make fundamental changes. "If your whole story is economic liberty, you're not really offering much," said New York Times columnist David Brooks on PBS NewsHour. "And I didn't see much rethinking in this speech; it could have been given by any Republican in the last 20 years."
Josh Barro at Bloomberg agrees: "This is the case Mitt Romney made against Obama in the 2012 election. It's the case that Republican Senate candidates made all over the country. It is a case for trickle-down economics. And it is a case that Americans have rejected."
However, this appears to be, for now at least, the Republican Party's approach to its recent setbacks. As David Frum at The Daily Beast describes it: "All that needs to change is (1) the party's stance on immigration and (2) the party's tone. Junk the Ayn Rand rhetoric about moochers and takers and spare a compassionate word for the unemployed. Then find a candidate with an appealing life story — particularly one who can speak Spanish — and it's onward to victory."
The only question now is whether voters will agree.