13 February 2013

State of the Union: do redundant rebuttals recognize a three-party system?

Someone leaving a comment on Salon.com's transcript of Senator Paul's rebuttal to the President's Annual Message to Congress raised a valid question: why was the Kentuckian given air time to represent the "Tea Party" when the Republican party, on whose ticket he was elected, already had air time for a rebuttal from Sen. Rubio of Florida? If Paul gets recognized on behalf of an entity that isn't even a real party, why didn't the news networks give rebuttal time to the Libertarians, the Greens, etc? The writer perceived media bias in favor of the "Repugs," who thus got "two bites at the apple." Yet it wouldn't surprise me to see people denounce the news networks for showing their bias in favor of the Democrats by encouraging divisions within the Republican camp. The assumption here would be that the "liberal media," presumably in league with the Democratic establishment, is pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy, encouraging TP pretensions of independence that could only hurt the GOP in the near future. Meanwhile, agreement seems possible across the ideological spectrum that it was unfair somehow that Obama was rebutted twice from his right and not once from his left. I'm sure that omission leaves someone feeling suppressed. For the moment, however, let's see whether two Republican rebuttals to the Annual Message were really necessary.

Both Rubio and Paul pushed back against the perception that the Republican Party (and the Tea Party) favors the rich at the expense of the poor. Rubio went to great lengths to establish his empathy with the working class, noting that he had only finished paying off his college loans a few months ago. On that issue, he reaffirmed his support for federal financial aid for students, while insisting that aid programs not discriminate against "programs that nontraditional students rely on, like online courses or degree programs that give you credit for work experience." This is one point of differentiation, since Paul, speaking for the TPs, didn't really address the student-loan/debt issue but was concerned only with school choice at the elementary level. Overall, Rubio strove more than Paul to downplay antagonism between public and private sectors, while accusing the President of exacerbating whatever antagonism exists with "false choices" and class-baiting rhetoric. "The choice isn’t just between big government or big business," he said, "What we need is an accountable, efficient, and effective government that allows small and new businesses to create more middle-class jobs."

Rubio and Paul both claim to have the interests of the poor at heart, the former more emphatically. Both claim that Obama-style big government will hurt the poor and middle class.

Rubio: The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security. So, 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, hard-working middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They need a plan to grow the middle class.

Paul:  Contrary to what the President claims, big government and debt are not a friend to the poor and the elderly. Big-government debt keeps the poor poor and saps the savings of the elderly.This massive expansion of the debt destroys savings and steals the value of your wages.Big government makes it more expensive to put food on the table. Big government is not your friend. The President offers you free stuff but his policies keep you poor.

Taxes and regulation throw unreasonable and unjustified obstacles in the path of economic growth as far as both senators are concerned. In short, just about anything that makes life more difficult for small business entrepreneurs is wrong. Eliminate these handicaps, both men say, and jobs will be created. This you must take on faith, though both men (Paul probably with more certainty) probably take the idea as a matter of natural law. Republicans themselves may not recognize this as an appeal to a faith that many Americans have lost. If many Americans feel that the Republican party or certain of its candidates don't care about them, how many more feel the same way about "business?" Too many of us have seen jobs outsourced to take for granted, as Republicans would like, that business's first priority is giving jobs to Americans. When Republicans do acknowledge this, they blame government for the taxes, regulations, etc., but labor costs are a sticking point as well, and that puts the apologists for business at odds with the working class or would-be working class. The GOP talks as if it's guaranteeing job creation when their own philosophy accepts the risk that all the steps taken to coddle entrepreneurs could result in few if any good jobs in this country. Until Republicans can make more concrete promises, like for instance getting some of their donors actually to pledge to create a certain number of jobs in a period of time, their rhetoric will do little to bridge the class divide, while their ideology will keep convincing them that it's up to the poor to build and cross the bridge.

On domestic policy, then, Paul is little more than an echo chamber rather than a distinct voice. The Kentuckian distinguished himself only by promoting the "Penny Plan" to achieve deficit reduction by cutting one cent out of every dollar spent by the government. He claims that this would result in a balanced budget (which he believes should be mandated by a constitutional amendment) in seven years. Overall, Paul differentiates himself only by his stridency on these issues. More substantive differences with the GOP mainstream (apparently represented by Rubio) emerge on foreign policy, as one might expect from the son of Ron Paul.

Rubio: On foreign policy, America continues to be indispensable to the goal of global liberty, property, and safeguarding human rights. The world is a better place when America is the strongest nation on Earth, but we can’t remain powerful if we don’t have an economy that can afford it.

Paul: [I]t is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.Where would we cut spending; well, we could start with ending all foreign aid to countries that are burning our flag and chanting death to America.The President could begin by stopping the F-16s and Abrams tanks being given to the radical Islamic government of Egypt.

Senator Paul is less absolutist in his opposition to American interventionism than his father, and probably couldn't have won his current job otherwise, but he's still more opposed to it, and to the whole system of foreign aid and other entanglements, than the typical jingo or neocon Republican. Whether he can even be said to speak for the relatively amorphous Tea Party on this issue, or whether a difference in foreign policy sufficiently justifies a second Republican rebuttal to the President, is debatable. By that standard, it would certainly seem appropriate to give air time to a representative of the Green party or the larger anti-interventionist (or anti-imperialist) left. I imagine the White House and the Democratic party would take more offense had any news network done that than they may have been by the networks giving time to Rand Paul. They'd certainly prefer a de facto three-party system in which they monopolized the center and the left while the opposition was split between right and far right. Whether that works better for the rest of us is another story.

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