It was supposed to be a State of the Union response that symbolized the rebranding of the Republican party.
The pre-game plan sounded perfectly: feature the rising star Latino senator who recently graced the cover of TIME, the same senator who is now the GOP’s most public face for comprehensive immigration reform. Have the senator give the response first in Spanish and later in English, and then watch political observers and commentators announce: THE GOP IS BACK!
The pre-game plan for Republicans and Senator Marco Rubio sounded fantastic. However, somewhere between Rubio’s bizarre delivery, his stretching of facts, and a water bottle moment that went viral on social media, it all fell apart.
First of all, the water bottle moment. Let’s not pretend that when Rubio bent down, while still looking at the camera, to grab a small bottle of water, that it wasn’t a big deal. It was. Whether you like it or not, optics matter. This was not a local speech at a Rotary Club. This was a nationally-televised defining moment right after the President of the United States spoke in front of Congress. The move made Rubio look nervous and like an amateur. Even this morning’s news show appearances —where Rubio made light of the situation— didn’t help.
But aside from the water, the substance of Rubio’s response didn’t really stray much from the pre-election message of the GOP. If you really break down the “new” message of the Republican party, here it is: keep the core Mitt Romney message, but play up comprehensive immigration reform. Showcase Rubio’s humble beginnings, but keep being the Party of No. Attack President Obama as a tax-and-spend dictator (a lot), but don’t offer any specifics.
And that was the problem with Rubio’s response. He was just too angry, coming off like a high schooler in a debate contest. It also didn’t help that the parts of the speech that he used to personalize the GOP brand bordered on the hypocritical. Case in point, when Rubio spoke about fiscal responsibility and paying off his student loans, you would think that he could have mentioned the time when he used a GOP credit card for his own personal expenses?
Or what about Rubio’s claim that his West Miami neighborhood is “the same working class neighborhood [Rubio] grew up in?” Is this the same “working class neighborhood” where Rubio is selling his “working class” home for $675,000 so that he can move his family to Washington? As one Miami outlet writes, “…it’s pretty brazen to put your residence there in a nationally televised speech when 1) you are actively trying to leave that working class neighborhood and 2) you stand to make more than a half-million bucks by doing so.” So what does Rubio really mean when he says, “I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.” Is Rubio referring to his future Republican neighbors in D.C.?
Nonetheless, the angry Rubio did what he needed to do; play to the GOP base. But after moments like last night, you are left wondering if this base is shrinking instead of growing. If the GOP wanted to expand the tent last night, it sure didn’t show it. Senator Rand Paul’s Tea Party response only clouded the GOP’s intentions as well. How many Republican responses to the President do you really need?
Rubio’s talking points were still stuck in 2012, minus the self-deportation. It was more reactive than proactive. What we will remember about last night? A president that closed a speech with strong emotions and a nervous Cuban-American senator who reached for a bottle of water on national TV.
Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77 ) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. In the past 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, Forbes, and The New York Times.