Frank Rich on the National Circus: Rubio’s Bad Infomercial Act Proves He’s No Savior

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Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the State of the Union address, Marco Rubio's watered-down rebuttal, and Pope Benedict's early departure.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama rolled out a strongly liberal second-term agenda that included raising the minimum wage, spending more on infrastructure, and enacting more stringent climate-change regulations. We've seen the president make big proposals to joint sessions of Congress before, some of which have become laws, many of which have not. What parts of this speech do you expect to become reality?
Very few, as is usually the case with the focus-group-tested laundry lists enumerated by modern American presidents in this annual ritual. Besides, the divided Congress assures that much of what Obama wants is DOA. What was notable about his speech is that it reaffirmed the bolder, second-term Obama also present in his Inaugural address. And then there was that final, soaring passage in which the president argued that the families of Newtown and Aurora — not to mention Gabby Giffords, also sitting in the audience — “deserve a vote” on new gun legislation. While Obama may not get any such legislation through this Congress, he did hand a gun to the GOP to shoot itself with. If Republicans seem completely intransigent about guns — to the point of blocking even those few restrictions favored by the vast majority of the public post-Newtown — it’s a political loser for them nearly everywhere except in the solid red states they already have locked down. 

Marco Rubio's rebuttal to Obama's address seemed an effort to claim some part of the populist mantel for the Republicans. Not only did Rubio deliver the speech in both English and Spanish, but he talked up the fact that he grew up as a working-class kid and still lives the blue-collar neighborhood in which he grew up. What did you think of Rubio's speech? 
Rubio was there to “put a new face on the party” said David Gregory on NBC before his address. Rubio is the Republicans’ “savior” according to this week’s already dated Time cover. Well, so much for that. Rubio’s new face was so garishly lit he looked like a jack-o’-lantern. His oleaginous delivery was that of an infomercial pitchman. And what was he selling, exactly, besides his own canned son-of-immigrants biography? (Even that has now been downsized to a flat generic spiel, since he was previously caught fictionalizing and hyping the circumstances of his parents’ departure from Cuba.) Rubio didn’t even try to broaden the GOP’s appeal, his bilingual stunt notwithstanding. It was a lot of Obamacare, Solyndra, “job-killing” laws, small business blah blah blah — recycled 2012 GOP campaign talking points. (Only Benghazi was missing in action, no doubt through an oversight.) The speech also had a whiny, defensive tone (“I don’t … want to protect the rich!”) and took a shot at the legitimacy of climate change (“Our government can’t control the weather”). These were stands that would appeal only to his party’s own base, which probably wasn’t even watching. It says all you need to know that no less an expert on State of the Union responses than Bobby Jindal declared afterwards that Rubio had done “a wonderful job.” 

And how do you think the speech set Rubio up for 2016?  Care to comment on "water-gate"
Look, it could have been worse. Rubio could have reached for a bottle of Evian instead of Poland Spring. Then again, it also could have been better: If he had grabbed a bottle of beer, he might have made a dent in erasing the fun-free teetotaling Republican image left by the Romney campaign. Whatever, the moment was a bit of pure farce that sent a simple message: Amateur Night. As comedy, it may even have surpassed Michele Bachmann’s looking-at-the-wrong-camera television address. But let’s not get carried away. Rubio’s clowning, sadly, didn’t remotely rank with Albert Brooks’s sweaty on-camera meltdown in Broadcast News or Ralph Kramden’s hapless television appearance in the classic “Chef of the Future” episode of The Honeymooners. As for the ultimate political fallout, who knows? It’s not as if the GOP is well stocked with plausible alternatives to take on Clinton or Biden in 2016. My favorite analysis of this question appeared in Politico, where a “general consensus” of Republican operatives declared that the incident would have “no little lingering impact” on Rubio’s 2016 prospects. Not quite sure what that language means, but maybe it doesn’t matter since many of these same operatives foresaw a Romney rout on our last Election Day.

Rand Paul delivered an alternative rebuttal, sponsored by the Tea Party Express. With Rubio, still something of a tea-party darling, delivering the GOP rebuttal, what did it mean to have Paul deliver his own speech? And now that the tea party has been so deeply absorbed by the GOP, does it serve any purpose as a stand-alone entity?
Did anyone in America beyond the Paul family actually listen to this speech? I think the only way to receive it was by transmissions through the fillings in your teeth. In any event, I just read it so you don’t have to. There are, it turns out, few differences between his speech and Rubio’s — precisely because the Republican party is the tea party, which is indeed now superfluous as a stand-alone entity. And so what Paul’s speech really was about was Paul; it was an ego trip by another first-term senator dreaming of the White House. His insistence on delivering it is just another indication of how little unity, and how much acrimony, there is in the GOP in the aftermath of its 2012 debacle. If you want to get a sense of the anger in its ranks, just listen to the hugely popular right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who is so enraged by what remains of the Republican Establishment that he recently ranted, “Who the hell died and made Karl Rove queen for a day?” 

Benedict XVI shocked the world this week by becoming the first pope to resign since 1415. Both the Church and the papacy have diminished in geopolitical influence over the past two decades. Could you see a new pope becoming a major player on the international stage?
No. There’s no surer way to destroy a brand than to become synonymous with the rape of children. At least Penn State cleaned house, which the Vatican has yet to do. The only clear-cut result that will arrive with the selection of Benedict’s successor is that it will free the New York Post to curtail its daily coverage of the paper’s unofficial mascot, Timothy Dolan, and return to full-time Obama bashing.