SOTU Response

Marco Rubio Winsome in Response to Obama, Rand Paul Mostly Feisty

In response to Obama, Marco Rubio put a nonscary (and nonwhite) face on the GOP, seemingly battling dry mouth in his reach for water, says Michelle Cottle.

Thematically, Tuesday night’s dueling responses from Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul were pretty much the same: Obama is all about Big Government, and Big Government is Bad.

Both Republicans touched on—and agreed upon—many of the same issues: They both embraced immigrants. They both plugged school vouchers. And of course they both decried Washington’s free-spending ways. They argued for (and against) pretty much what you’d expect.

Paul, also unsurprisingly, took things farther than Rubio, getting all worked up about executive overreach and government transparency, and the possible need to “sweep the place clean.” He cheered the sequester as a good starting point (!) and slapped both parties around for overspending. But, hey, the guy’s a Tea Partier: tailing against the establishment is the heart and soul of his movement.

The big contrast was, as you’d expect, stylistic. As point man for the GOP’s new charm offensive, Rubio was so warm and sensitive that I thought he was about to burst into tears. With those big, earnest eyes and that smile, he dressed up some of the party’s tough-love policies so sweetly they sounded downright bleeding heart. Not since Bill Clinton has the middle class been so tenderly wooed.

Poor Rubio was clearly nervous. He kept wiping his temples and the corners of his mouth, making me wonder if we were about to witness a classic flop-sweat episode à la Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. And the constant teeth-licking suggested he was suffering from massive dry mouth—a suspicion confirmed when, near the end of his speech, Rubio lunged awkwardly off camera to snatch up a bottle of water. (You could almost hear Jon Stewart squeal in ecstasy.) For many folks, however, those tics likely just added to his aura of someone so warm, fuzzy, and vulnerable you want to wrap him in a blankie and fix him cocoa. Post-water break, Rubio managed to get into a groove and ease on in for a smooth-jazz finish.

As befitting his Tea Party’s rabble-rousing status, Paul was edgier, feistier—if not exactly angrier, then clearly more frustrated and irritable. He looked less nervous than Rubio, but also far less winsome. (The mud-brown Tea Party background didn’t help much with the aesthetics.) His base will be pleased, and no one else in the party will probably much care.

Winsome is what the GOP is scrambling for these days, and on that Rubio delivered. The senator didn’t dazzle, but he did what he was sent to do: put a kind, nonscary—and nonwhite—face on a party dealing with a nasty image problem.