WASHINGTON — In English and Spanish, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday night delivered a scathing rebuke of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, signaling a GOP battle for middle-class voters that could help re-energize his party and also propel a potential 2016 White House run.
The Florida senator delivered his party’s official rebuttal to Obama’s speech, but he wasn’t the only Republican responding Tuesday night. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another potential Republican presidential contender, responded to Obama’s talk on behalf of the tea party.
Rubio challenged Obama’s commitment to preserving and growing the nation’s middle class by expanding the role of the federal government and raising taxes on wealthy earners.
“Presidents in both parties — from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — have known that our free-enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity,” Rubio said in prepared remarks. “But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. … And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
Rubio told viewers that he is firmly planted in the middle class, a legacy from his bartender father and a mother who worked as a cashier and maid, who came from Cuba “in pursuit of the opportunity to improve their life and give their children the chance at even a better one.”
“Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in,” he said. “My neighbors aren’t millionaires. They are retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They’re immigrants who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy.”
He added: “Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
At one point Rubio paused for a quick sip of water. He went on to assert that Obama’s proposals will hurt middle-class families, cost jobs and harm senior citizens because they do “nothing to save Medicare and Social Security.”
“In order to balance our budget, the choice doesn’t have to be either higher taxes or dramatic benefit cuts for those in need,” he said. “Instead we should grow our economy so that we create new taxpayers, not new taxes, and so our government can afford to help those who truly cannot help themselves.”
While Obama implored Congress to vote on gun control legislation, Rubio acknowledged “the rise of violence in our country,” but he warned against weakening the Second Amendment.
Rubio said that if the economy could grow by 4 percent a year, the nation could create more jobs and reduce the deficit by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade. He proposed doing so by, in part, encouraging growth in the energy industry including solar, wind, coal, oil and natural gas.
He agreed with Obama on the need to fix Medicare in a way that doesn’t harm senior citizens.
“It provided my father the care he needed to battle cancer and ultimately die with dignity,” he said. “And it pays for the care my mother receives now. I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother. But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now is in favor of bankrupting it.”
In the aftermath of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s crushing loss to Obama and a disappointing showing by Republicans in last November’s senatorial elections, Rubio has increased his profile and stature within the party and nationally.
Republicans, recognizing that they failed to connect with enough Hispanic voters in part because of the party’s opposition to a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, hope the son of Cuban immigrants can help the party heal from what some leaders say are self-inflicted political wounds from failing to be more inclusive.
Rubio has been working with a bipartisan group of senators who are pushing for immigration legislation that would include a pathway to citizenship and enhance security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Overhauling immigration laws, he said, is essential for economic growth.
“We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally,” he said. “But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
In his remarks on behalf of the tea party, Paul also touched on immigration, urging tea party supporters to embrace efforts in Washington to change the system.
Rubio delivered his remarks amid the official trappings of the House of Representatives’ Speakers Conference Room. Paul spoke from a downtown Washington meeting room, less than a mile from Capitol Hill.
“We are the party that embraces hard work and ingenuity, therefore we must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future,” Paul said in prepared text released before he spoke. “We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities.”
Paul had harsh words for Obama, Democrats and his own party on federal spending, and for their reluctance to take a realistic approach in cutting it.
“Both parties have been guilty of spending too much, of protecting their sacred cows, of backroom deals in which everyone wins, but every taxpayer loses,” he said. “It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.”
Paul advocated letting the sequester, an $85 billion round of automatic cuts that would take effect March 1 if Congress fails to act, happen.
“Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America credit rating,” he said. “Both parties will have to agree to cut, or we will never fix our fiscal mess.”
Being tapped to give the opposing party’s response to a president’s State of the Union speech is an honor usually reserved to rising stars in the Republican or Democratic parties, or others regarded as presidential or vice presidential material.
But recent history of State of the Union responders has produced mixed results. Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, received brutal reviews for his 2009 rebuttal and was passed over by Romney as a vice presidential running mate.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a favorite among cultural conservatives, gave the Republican’s 2010 response. He, too, failed to make Romney’s vice presidential cut. On the other hand, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who joined Romney on the losing presidential ticket, gave the GOP’s 2011 rebuttal.
(c)2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau