State of the Union

The GOP's Faultlines on Display

Three Republican responses to the State of the Union Address.

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The Republicans had a fractured reaction to Barack Obama's State of the Union Address last night. First there was the GOP's official reply, delivered by Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Then there was the Tea Party response, delivered by Utah Sen. Mike Lee under the banner of the group Tea Party Express. There was a third response from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who wasn't speaking under any organization's flag but was expected to represent the more libertarian-leaning wing of the party. And Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen delivered the party's message to Spanish-speakers.

Set aside Ros-Lehtinen, whose speech existed for reasons more demographic than ideological. The remaining trio looked in advance like a neat split between the party's ongoing faction fights, with McMorris Rodgers representing the GOP establishment, Lee representing the establishment's conservative critics, and Paul representing the critics who are more libertarian. It didn't work out that way, though. Lee, a frequent ally of Paul's, did not give a conventional conservative speech, sounding instead like he had absorbed last summer's debate over "libertarian populism." Paul's proposals and rhetoric were more Kempish, as though he'd prepared for his talk by reviewing the papers produced by the free-market think-tank community in the '80s.

Let's start with the official response, a bland effort whose opening felt like it had been made with the same cookie cutter the president's writers had used. Like Obama, McMorris Rodgers praised America as a place where someone from her humble beginnings could rise to a position of authority; like Obama, she invoked a series of scenes of ordinary people doing ordinary things. Her talk ventured much further into the speaker's personal story than the president's speech did—partly because the GOP wants to seem "relatable," especially to women; partly because of the audition-reel quality of the job, which frequently involves a "rising star" presenting him- or herself to the voters; partly because the party regulars apparently prefer platitudes to concrete proposals that might offend somebody. The most detailed policy contrast to be found between McMorris Rodgers' speech and the president's is that she opposes ObamaCare and he supports it. Not exactly a newsworthy disagreement. In the place of a platform, her talk featured focus-grouped phrases like "The true state of the union lies in your heart," a line not even Michael Bolton would sing. 

Lee didn't discuss his personal life. He talked instead about the Boston Tea Party and the Constitutional Convention, and he was less interested in sounding relatable than in sounding the horns of rebellion and reconstruction. The effect was interesting: If you're a leftist honestly concerned about corporate power and civil liberties, there was more to cheer in the Tea Partier's speech than the Democrat's. Lee uttered the word "inequality" four times as frequently as Obama did, using it as a springboard to condemn "cronyist privilege at the top." He denounced NSA spying, called for criminal justice reform, and declared that "if we're going to reform welfare, we should start with corporate welfare." He harshly criticized the Republicans' record in power, declaring that "the Republican establishment in Washington can be just as out of touch as the Democratic establishment." He didn't just attack ObamaCare for giving too much power to the government; he attacked the old system for giving too much power to insurance companies. There were just a couple of nods to social conservatism (an anti-abortion line, a line staking out a federalist stance on gay mariage), and there was no sign at all of a hawkish foreign policy. The speech's solutions involved freeing markets and devolving authority rather than creating new government programs, so that leftist listener might not grin along with everything. Still, Lee's critique was far more populist than anything the Democrat said.

And Paul? Like Lee, he struck a lot of libertarian-leaning notes: blaming the housing bubble on the Federal Reserve, attacking Bush's bank bailouts and Obama's stimulus plan, condemning federal spending and industrial policy, and calling for "economic freedom zones" where taxes are lower, regulations are fewer, and schools compete for students. (He also fell into Obama's habit of argument by anecdote, criticizing welfare dependency by way of relating the life of Star Parker.) Unlike his colleague from Utah, he never moved outside the arenas of economics and education. By invoking incarceration and the NSA and by offering a harder-hitting critique of corporate welfare, Lee in some ways delivered the more libertarian address.

So instead of a hard-core conservative and a libertarian, we got two critics of the Republican leadership offering overlapping but distinct programs. Neither Paul nor Lee is likely to start setting the policy agenda anytime soon, so their speeches are more significant as indicators of the currents they're trying to channel than for any particular legislation that the senators might support in the next year. Watching those currents come into view may prove far more interesting than watching Obama attempt to enact his latest laundry list.