WASHINGTON — The Republican party upped the ante on responses to the State of the Union address Tuesday night with four rebuttals— exposing an increasingly decentralized GOP heading into the 2014 election year.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen offered separate responses to President Barack Obama’s address. Rodgers delivered the official GOP response and said Obama’s policies “are making people’s lives harder.”
“So tonight I’d like to share a more hopeful, Republican vision – one that empowers you, not the government,” the Washington state congresswoman said. “It’s one that champions free markets – and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you.”
The Republicans’ decision to have the party’s highest-ranking female House member woman deliver the response underscores the pressure they are feeling to dispel Democratic accusations that the party is waging a “war on women.” She was the first female to officially respond to the State of the Union since Obama took office.
During Rodgers’ rebuttal, she addressed Obama’s remarks on economic inequality, saying her party has “plans to close the gap.” From a sofa in a homelike room, she shared her personal experience of becoming a congresswoman after working at a McDonald’s to help pay for college.
She also said the Affordable Care Act is “not working.”
“Tonight the President made more promises that sound good, but won’t solve the problems actually facing Americans,” she said. “Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government’s.”
Larry Stuelpnagel, a journalism and political science professor at Northwestern University, said the Republicans’ decision to select Rodgers represented an appeal to both female and religious voters. He said her message was “not very specific” and directed at the GOP base.
“I don’t think it would reach out and grab any undecided voters, particularly women voters,” he said.
Continuing a tradition Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann began in 2011, Lee delivered a response on behalf of the Tea Party Express. Lee gained national attention in the fall when he joined Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in leading the fight that resulted in the 16-day government shutdown.The Utah senator blamed government for economic inequality.
“Throughout the last five years, President Obama has promised an economy for the middle class; but all he’s delivered is an economy for the middle-men,” Lee said
Paul decided to take a second stab at the State of the Union response after speaking on behalf of the tea party last year. The Kentucky senator did not respond to the speech through traditional media, but rather took to YouTube and his own social media accounts to promote a video of himself flanked by American and Kentucky flags. Like Lee, he attacked government spending, saying it does not create jobs.
“It’s not that government’s inherently stupid, although it’s a debatable point,” he said. “It’s that government doesn’t get the same signals.”
Many took the senator’s decision to deliver a rebuttal as further evidence he may pursue a 2016 presidential bid.
Reaching out to Hispanic Americans, Ros-Lehtinen delivered a response to the State of the Union in Spanish on CNN en Espanol, Telemundo and Univision. In 2012, Obama received record support of Latino voters, who made up 10 percent of the electorate for the first time and voted for him at a rate of 71 percent.
Stuelpnagel said the four separate responses indicate a “splinter of the Republican mainstream” that has been occurring since Obama took office. He also said the responses streamed online from both Lee and Paul are indicative of the party using social media more frequently, but they may not have reached out beyond their own supporters.
He said the official GOP response this year went more smoothly than past responses, noting that Rodgers’ response was gaffe-free.
Responding to Obama’s State of the Union address has become something of a “curse in political circles, with White House correspondent Major Garrett calling it “the Sports Illustrated cover of politics” in a Tweet. The first responder to take on Obama, Gov. Bobby Jindal, went from a potential 2012 presidential candidate to a man unfit for primetime television thanks to an awkward rebuttal. Last year, every American with a Twitter account knew Florida Sen. Marco Rubio reached for a water bottle and forgot his critiques on Obama’s economic policy.
“In the sense that she did not have any huge gaffes, particularly the way Rubio did reaching for the water that ended up being on “Saturday Night Live,” I think she did well,” Stuelpnagel said. “But I don’t think she reached out and grabbed any new voters. It was a message to Republicans who would be agreeing with what she had to say.”