As best I could, I watched the president’s State of the Union address from a non-ideological viewpoint, detaching my personal views from my opinion about his delivery. Of course I couldn’t help but instinctively decipher his rhetorical code (invest = spend, balanced approach = raise taxes, initiative = new government program, etc.) but otherwise allowed myself to just listen to the speech. With a few exceptions, the theme of the speech was largely a rehash of the president’s campaign message. His winning campaign message, I might add.
In his response, Senator Marco Rubio was correct in saying “the idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle-class taxpayers [is] an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried.” But, as conservatives in the public square, we’re unwise to merely rail against the president’s speech as another big-government, job-killing, tax-raising manifesto (even though I agree with the substantive critique of this publication’s editors). We feel that way about this president and his speech, but too many voters do not — especially Americans who vote but don’t follow daily political developments.
As supporters of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free markets, too often our candidates and elected leaders rail against the corrosive influence of expansive government without thoroughly explaining why our “sensible”limited-government approach will actually make people’s lives tangibly better — lifting them from poverty, providing them better education options, and preserving the programs they rely on (Medicare and Social Security, especially). This happens because we’re really good at talking to — or at — voters who already agree with us, but less good in reaching independent (or casual) voters who are seeking straightforward answers for a better life, not a complicated lesson in economic theory.
The fact of the matter is — policy substance aside — the president delivered yet another effective and persuasive political speech. He framed himself as a sensible politician in a dysfunctional town full of straw-man opponents. He acknowledged our deficit problem, but said we can’t cut our way to prosperity. In a heartfelt way, he explained how “smart” government will educate our kids, protect our social safety net, reduce our school loans, provide health care, fix our bridges, increase our wages, eradicate poverty, and end our wars. These are all great goals, but conservatives rightly differ on the best way to get there.
Only conservative policies can make the promise of American opportunity and prosperity reality for every American, but the president has captured that rhetorical high ground, largely using center-right terminology to justify an expansive government vision that purports to solve every societal ill. He gave a speech — as he regularly does — that meets people where they are, regardless of the policy reality that follows (and he is abetted by a largely uncritical press).
Unfortunately, conservatives have yet to fully internalize an alternative approach that doesn’t play into the president’s political strategy. He has mastered the art of grandstanding on “common sense” issues while accusing his opponents of perpetual obstructionism. And then we obstruct, on his terms. Conservatives also optically obsess over tax rates and spending cuts, while ignoring the fact that most voters don’t draw a direct connection between these issues and jobs. When the president says he wants to “invest” and we say we want to “cut,” he is wrong on the substance but right on the politics. We need to take back the terminology, and in doing so, the perception of who’s on the high ground.
To this point, the substance of Rubio’s rebuttal was very good. His “we’re not the party of the rich” message is badly needed, as is his central focus on equal opportunity. He also articulated well the challenge of reforming, and thereby preserving, Medicare in a way that right-of-center candidates should emulate. (Majority Leader Eric Cantor also did a great job of articulating a holistic conservative approach at AEI last week, and conservatives should study both speeches). In the meantime, we can’t afford to dismiss the president’s rhetorical approach. It’s politically effective and meets much of the electorate where they’re at . . . whether we like that fact or not.