Sen. Marco Rubio's response to President Obama's State of the Union address will not only be his tryout for the prized role as the GOP's de facto leader — it is also supposed to reflect a new and improved Republican Party, which is still in the midst of a rehabilitation project following Obama's near-landslide re-election victory. Rubio is the face of that makeover, a Cuban-American who will deliver his response in both Spanish and English in a bid to make the party more appealing to Latinos, as well as more inclusive in general. At age 41, he is also a full 10 years younger than Obama, and a symbol of the GOP's deep well of fresh ideas and vigor.
That's why it was somewhat puzzling when Rubio, in a preview of his remarks, told the Associated Press that he would use his response to cast Obama's second-term agenda as more "big government." Rubio said, "You're usually able to go as far as your talent and work will take you and that's the direct product of free enterprise and limited government. The president is basically asking us to abandon that. He's asking us to embrace the principles of more government, more government spending, more government control of our economy."
Let's leave aside the question of whether Obama has ever advocated "abandoning" the free enterprise system. What's clear is that Rubio is essentially using the same boilerplate language about "big government" that the Republican Party used during Obama's first term, and that Mitt Romney adopted as the mantra of his campaign — efforts that, needless to say, did not lead to Obama's defeat. Indeed, Republican critics like David Brooks at The New York Times have argued that the anti-government message simply does not resonate with large, growing segments of the electorate — Latinos, Asians, and young people in general — that formed a crucial part of Obama's winning coalition. Many of these voters see government as a helping hand in climbing the socioeconomic ladder, whether it's through immigration reform, student loan relief, or better access to health care.
Top Republican politicians, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have called for the GOP to find a different core message besides cutting government. But Rubio's return to a shopworn attack line will only renew liberal criticism that the GOP's much-ballyhooed changes are entirely superficial. "As long as Republicans remain tied to reflexive government-is-bad rhetoric, they will struggle to articulate a positive role government can play in people's lives," says Greg Sargent at The Washington Post. Jonathan Chait at New York has described the Republican Party's makeover thusly: "Take a dive on immigration reform, and otherwise change nothing else."
For some conservatives, however, the GOP's problem remains the messenger (in this case, the fatally robotic Romney) and not the message. "Of course, there are some new ides floated around, but the liberal writers are mostly correct," says Noah Glyn at National Review. "Much of the GOP's rebranding is really just repackaging." According to Glyn, this is not necessarily a bad thing. He writes: "Obama's biggest accomplishment was repackaging standard Democratic party policies as Hope and Change."
And that's presumably where Rubio comes in, to sell the Republican Party's signature policies with a Hope-and-Change-like campaign. "He is the best communicator in the GOP at a time when Republicans have struggled notably to sell their message," says Stephen F. Hayes at The Weekly Standard.
But if Rubio's remarks to the AP are a true indication of what he plans to say tonight, then he is failing even on a superficial level. The contents of the package are the same — and so is the wrapping paper.