The GOP responses to President Barack Obama’s Tuesday State of the Union speech offer underscore ongoing divisions in the party that hopes to retain control of the White House in 2016 after two terms of a Democratic presidency.
The official GOP response to Obama’s speech was a folksy affair delivered by freshman Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst. The lawmaker began by informing viewers that she didn’t intend to merely respond to Obama’s speech.
“I’d like to talk about your priorities,” she said. “I’d like to have a conversation about the new Republican Congress you just elected, and how we plan to make Washington focus on your concerns again.”
Her speech, which spoke largely to working middle-class Americans, was peppered with anecdotes about her all-American upbringing.
“As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardees,” Ernst said early in her speech. “We were raised to live simply, not to waste.”
Ernst went on to underscore the importance of Americans valuing frugality over handouts.
“You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry,” Ernst said.
“But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet,” she continued.
Ernst went on to assure voters that the GOP heard the message voters sent in November when Republicans regained control of Congress and vowed that she and her colleagues have big legislative plans for the months ahead.
But while she did touch on issues ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to tax reform and cybersecurity, Ernst delivered few specifics about the GOP’s plans to combat Obama’s agenda through the end of his presidency.
She did note that the GOP plans to fast-track the Keystone pipeline with a jobs bill.
Ernst also drew on her military experience to criticize the president’s seeming lack of a strategy in addressing current threats in the Middle East, hinting at the possibility of new GOP efforts to ramp up military action in the region.
“For two decades, I’ve proudly worn our nation’s uniform; today, as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard. While deployed overseas with some of America’s finest men and women, I’ve seen just how dangerous these kinds of threats can be,” Ernst said. “The forces of violence and oppression don’t care about the innocent. We need a comprehensive plan to defeat them.”
If, like many conservatives, you found Ernst’s non-rebuttal a bit milquetoast as Obama prepares to double down on his policy agenda, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) unofficial rebuttal likely sounded much better.
The likely 2016 presidential contender opened his 12 minute online response by suggesting that Obama had offered Americans a rosier assessment of the country’s situation than reality permits.
“I wish I had better news for you, but… All is not well in America,” Paul said. “America is adrift. Something is clearly wrong.”
The libertarian leaning Republican called for new leadership not just in the White House but throughout government, saying that many of the nation’s problems can be ascribed to stale leadership.
“I’ve only been in office a short time, but one thing I’ve discovered is that there is no monopoly on knowledge in Washington,” he said.
“The best thing that could happen is for us — to once and for all — limit the terms of all politicians,” Paul continued. “We already limit the President to two terms.
“I think we should put limits on the terms of Congress and infuse our government with fresh ideas.”
Paul went on to directly criticize Washington’s failed 50-year “War on Poverty” and Obama’s insistence that the politics of wealth redistribution can make it a success.
“[Obama] misunderstands that the bulk of America wants a bigger pie,” the lawmaker said. “They want to work and don’t want a handout — but a hand up.”
Furthermore, Paul said, Washington will never succeed in lifting millions of Americans out of poverty until the president and Congress learn how to balance the nation’s budget by limiting unnecessary government spending.
“You cannot project power from bankruptcy court. It does not make us appear stronger when we borrow money from China and send it to countries that burn our flag,” he said.
Paul’s speech, in many ways, criticized his own party as much as the president’s policies.
He noted that the advocates of unfettered military spending are those most responsible for the “hollowing out of our national defense.”
“Unfortunately, both parties too often seek military intervention without thinking through the possible unintended consequences,” Paul said. “Many Republicans only complain that we didn’t send U.S. ground troops or we didn’t stay long enough.”
The GOP lawmaker said he plans to propose “the first ever Audit of the Pentagon” to “seek ways to make our defense department more modern and efficient.”
Along a similar line, Paul said that the nation’s out-of-control spending on social welfare initiatives could only be addressed if politicians are willing to cut corporate welfare.
“I say: We will not cut one penny from the safety net until we’ve cut every penny from corporate welfare!” he said.
But before any improvements can be made for the American people, Paul said, Congress must start doing its job.
“So much of Washington’s inability to cut waste in government comes from them not doing their job,” he said. “It has been several decades since Congress passed all the spending bills individually.
“Instead, the spending bills are lumped together in something they call a ‘Cromnibus’ that is thousands of pages long. They allow no amendments to cut wasteful spending. Often the bill is plopped on our desk with only a few hours to review. No one, and I mean no one, is able to read what is in the bill.”
The lawmaker announced forthcoming legislation, the “Read the Bills Act,” which would hold congressional votes for a waiting period of one day for every 20 pages in new legislation.
“We have set up a privileged class in Washington, and Americans are sick and tired of it,” Paul said, announcing that he also plans to introduce a constitutional amendment that would ensure that lawmakers abide by every law they pass.
Paul’s anti-Washington response also included familiar calls for expanded civil liberties protections and a demand that Congress reverse any legislation that runs afoul of the nation’s Bill of Rights.
The Kentucky lawmaker concluded his speech with a vision for the future of America which includes, “a simple, fair tax system,” common-sense national defense, clampdowns on special interests and justice reform.
“The path we are on now does not lead there,” he said. “But there is time to change course.”
Paul’s speech leaves little doubt that his presidential efforts are already in full swing, even if won’t officially announce his candidacy until this fall.