Ever since they had their heads handed to them in the presidential election, embattled Republicans have insisted that there is no “civil war” within their party. And yet, as evidenced by the GOP's preparations for Tuesday’s State of the Union address from President Barack Obama, the GOP is battling for its very soul -- in front of the whole world, no less.
Republicans will offer not one, but two responses to the president’s speech. The first will come from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who will aim to offer an alternative vision to Obama’s agenda. The second will come from tea party-favorite Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who will offer an alternative to the alternative. Confused? Welcome to the GOP.
Rubio, of course, is on the unofficial short list of presidential candidates for 2016. (Time magazine last week dubbed him the savior of his party.) The affable 41-year-old will represent what is presumably the mainstream wing of the fragmented GOP, which, as no shortage of pundits have pointed out, is suffering from a serious public-relations crisis. Rubio -- young, charismatic, well-spoken -- will aim to change America’s perception of the party on Tuesday evening, taking advantage of his time on the national stage. He will respond to the president’s stance on jobs, the federal debt, immigration and gun control, and his overall demeanor will depend largely on the type of ammunition given to him by Obama himself.
The president, liberated from having to to worry about being re-elected, has the freedom to set the tone of the evening as he sees fit. He can come out swinging, under the assumption that the American voters elected him with a mandate to push his agenda forward, or he can reassure the nation that he is willing to reach across the aisle and carry out the true will of the people: getting things done. If Obama chooses the former, Rubio will have the chance to counter the president’s bellicose tenor and present something not seen in more than a decade: a unified vision for the Republican Party.
Or will he? Regardless of how Rubio presents his response, the presence of Rand Paul -- and his tea party-friendly rebuttal -- will be a wrench in the works, both for Rubio’s prospects as presidential material and for the Republican Party as a whole. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Paul insisted that he’s not trying to upstage Rubio. “To me, I see it as extra response,” he said. “I don’t see it as necessarily divisive.”
But perception matters, and the notion that the president’s vision for the country warrants two separate responses from the opposing party only serves to weaken the GOP and bolster Obama’s mandate -- like tag-team wrestlers joining forces to take on one unstoppable champion. Indeed, much to the Democrats’ delight, part of the reason Obama has become so unshakable is the dissonance within the Republican Party. Should the Republicans get their act together before 2016, the odds of their winning the presidency are in their favor. Americans, by nature, seem to have an aversion to keeping one party in power for too long. But to do that -- as Clinton proved in the 1990s and Reagan in the 1980s -- they would need to move to the center, something the tea party faction of the GOP doesn’t seem willing to let them do, even in light of Mitt Romney’s electoral shellacking this past November.
Rubio has said publicly that he wants to offer the American people the alternative, not the opposition, to the Obama vision. If Rand were serious about not stepping on Rubio’s toes, he would step aside and allow him to do that. The truth is, Rand was personally tapped by tea party organizers to offer an alternative to Rubio’s alternative, an indication that the right-wing faction has learned nothing from the lessons of the last election -- in which they were handed their aforementioned heads.
This is the third year in a row the tea party has sponsored its own rebuttal to a State of the Union address. Last year, Herman Cain offered a tea party response. The year before that it was Michele Bachmann. And how did that work out for them again?