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Jamelle Bouie (American Prospect)

Jamelle Bouie

(American Prospect)

Jamelle Bouie

Rubio’s response to Obama is a national joke. It’s also a tragedy Add to ...

He’s been called the “savior” of the Republican Party, and GOP officials from around the country have lined up behind him as the great Latino hope of their party. But if Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s much-discussed response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night is any indication, he is not the man to lead the Republican Party out of the wilderness.

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Mr. Rubio is a handsome, charismatic politician, and his speech was presented as a new conservative message and way forward for the party. But in rhetoric and substance, it was little more than right-wing boilerplate – the same mishmash of supply-side economics and social conservatism that cost Mitt Romney the presidency, and gave Republicans their biggest setback since 2008. Take Mr. Rubio’s face from the picture, and any Republican of the last decade could have given that speech.

At some point during the speech, it was clear that Mr. Rubio needed water. He had been speaking for 10 minutes, and was pausing to collect himself and deal with his dry mouth. When it became intolerable, he did a quick dash to the side, grabbing a bottle of water and taking a swig, while keeping his eye on the camera.

Three things immediately stood out. First, this was the funniest thing to happen in a State of the Union response since Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal mocked volcano monitoring just one week before a volcano erupted in Alaska. Second, whoever failed to put water near Mr. Rubio was almost certainly fired. And third, this mishap was perfect for the occasion.

Nothing in Rubio’s speech was new or interesting. Nothing described the world in which Americans actually live. And nothing reflected the real problems faced by the United States. We live in an economy with high unemployment, stagnant growth, diminished mobility, and fewer opportunities than ever before. Americans want an agenda – from both parties – that does something to address and ameliorate this.

Indeed, you can skim through and count the clichés. Does he accuse Mr. Obama of hating the free market? Yes: “Free-enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity. But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.” Does he attack Mr. Obama’s health-care plan for harming businesses and making health insurance more expensive? Yes: “Because Obamacare created expensive requirements for companies with more than 50 employees, now many of these businesses aren’t hiring.” (This, despite the fact that “Obamacare” won’t be implemented until 2014).

Mr. Rubio attacked Obama for presiding over a large national debt, and then attacked him for supporting tax increases. He announced a growth target of 4 per cent, which we’re somehow supposed to achieve by cutting taxes corporations and the wealthiest minority of Americans. He dismissed climate science: “government can’t control the weather.” He repeated the disproven claim that government intervention caused the housing crisis. And he attacked the president’s gun-control proposals (an assault-weapons ban and universal background checks) as an attack on the Second Amendment.

Like him or not, President Obama has offered a program meant to steer the United States toward growth. Mr. Rubio, on the other hand, has not. Instead, he’s offered a slightly different version of the case Republicans have made since Obama entered office. It’s the one they ran in last year’s election, and it’s the one Americans rejected when given the choice.

Like Mr. Rubio reaching for his bottle of water, the GOP is hapless – flailing and failing to offer a serious alternative to the public. Last night wasn’t just a funny moment – it’s one that paints a perfect picture of where the Republican Party stands in 2013.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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