WASHINGTON — When it comes to rebutting President Barack Obama’s national address tonight, Republicans have four different approaches from four different corners of the party’s ideological wings.
This four-vs.-one approach, to some, is the result of the expanding media universe that allows many different views to be heard, reaching so many different voters. Yet others see the various responses as a sign of a divided Republican Party that cannot unite around the single idea or a single voice to respond to Obama’s State of the Union address.
“I don’t consider it to be competing,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “It’s just that we live in an age where you can get your opinion out there, but if you don’t videotape it and send it out, nobody listens. So we’re just trying to get more people to listen.”
Paul is videotaping a response that aides will distribute on Facebook, YouTube and other medial outlets. A potential 2016 contender, Paul has become the nation’s leading libertarian politician.
The official, nationally televised response will come from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who as the No. 4 GOP leader is the highest-ranking female Republican in Congress. A close ally of the leadership team of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, McMorris Rodgers hails from the establishment conservative wing and is expected to lay out a vision with broad appeal, possibly through the prism of balancing work as the mother of three young children. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the most senior Hispanic Republican, is expected to hew closely to McMorris Rodgers in the Spanish-language response to Obama.
Finally, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is delivering a speech sponsored by Tea Party Express, one of the constellation of conservative groups that have flourished in the past four years. An architect of the strategy to shut down the federal government in a bid to thwart Obama’s health-care law, Lee comes from the far right corner of his party, both on fiscal and social policy.
Some of the GOP speeches will have overlap, but there is very little coordination. Paul struggled to remember the name of McMorris Rodgers — “last name, it’s two names” — in a brief interview Monday, before adding, “I doubt that I’ll disagree with much that she has to say on anything really.”
The splintered approach is not necessarily a surprising thing, given the widespread views that Republicans have adopted. More so than Democrats, the GOP’s self-identifying voters have bunkered themselves into entrenched corners.
Back in January 2009, 52 percent of Republicans expressed confidence in their party’s congressional leaders to make the “right decisions” about the future, with 48 percent not confident, according to polling from The Washington Post and ABC News. That confidence has plummeted.
Now, just 36 percent of Republicans have confidence in their congressional leaders to make the right decisions, with 63 percent not confident, according to a new Post-ABC poll. Democrats are far more supportive of their leaders, with 56 percent expressing confidence in the Democratic leadership teams to make the right calls.
On issue after issue, Democrats have more trust in their party leaders than Republicans have in theirs. For example, 82 percent of Democrats trust their congressional leaders to handle the minimum wage — an issue that Obama is expected to address as he seeks support for raising it from $7.25 an hour to more than $10 an hour.
Yet just 68 percent of Republican voters trust GOP leaders on handling the minimum wage, according to the Post-ABC poll.
This trust deficit leaves an opening for other GOP responses aside from the official version, a speech that is chosen each year by the collective wisdom of Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Paul said he has a “guaranteed” audience of 1.5 million “friends” on Facebook, as well as several million more who will be sent his speech on his email list.
Lee, appearing at the National Press Club in a speech broadcast on the Tea Party Express website, was expected to underscore his ascent as a favorite of conservative activists. He followed in the footsteps of Paul and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who delivered past tea party responses in 2012 and 2011, respectively, to Obama.
Advisers expect Lee, a youthful, 42-year-old freshman, to focus on economic and fiscal issues in broadsides against the Obama administration with a tinge of exasperation, expressing disappointment with the president’s positions on federal spending, regulatory policy and taxes. Calling on Republicans to champion a “conservative reform agenda,” he expects to say the GOP will struggle to win a national mandate unless it makes better arguments.
Sal Russo, a Tea Party Express adviser, said Lee will deliver the speech directly to a camera, with no audience except for aides. “It’s not a dinner or cocktail party,” he said. “We were looking for someone who is identified with the tea party to articulate our issues, and we settled on Mike early.”
Paul, who will record his address from his Capitol Hill office, will probably echo Lee in tone and message, but touch on a broader range of topics, including national security.
A running theme for Paul and Lee is the desire for a Republican anti-poverty program, especially as Obama and leading Democrats concentrate on income inequality ahead of this year’s midterm elections.
Lee, who has delivered a series of speeches on social and economic policy over the past year at conservative think tanks, highlighted a number of GOP proposals, including legislation to expand access to higher education and eliminate targeted tax credits for energy companies.
Paul, who touted “economic freedom zones” in a recent visit to Detroit, has been pushing free enterprise as the best path to job growth in struggling communities. A Paul aide said the senator’s theme would be modeled after the example of Jack Kemp, the late New York congressman, who coordinated anti-poverty policy during George H.W. Bush’s administration in the early 1990s.
The different responses, according to Paul, should not be treated that differently from the throngs of lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — who will fling themselves in front of the two dozen media cameras set up in Statuary Hall just off the House floor, as well as several dozen more in the Russell and Cannon buildings on opposite sides of the street from the Capitol.
“Everybody will sound off on this,” Paul said.
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