Mighty Marco at the plate

It would have been nice to see the hometown boy hit one out of the park. Or just get a solid hit and reach second.

But Marco Rubio barely beat out a slow roller down the right field line — far right — to reach first in his GOP response to the president’s State of the Union. The great Hispanic hope of the GOP — the “Republican savior” as Time magazine put it — nearly whiffed. The new face of Republicanism delivered an old-fashioned speech that recycled ideas from the Romney campaign and Reagan era. The 41-year-old Cuban American who tweets and posts and has Tupac on his iPod sounded like he’d been listening to the Andrews Sisters. Or the Koch brothers.

It was an analog speech for a digital age. Not a Bobby Jindal moment, but close.

Rubio will have other big time at-bats in his promising political career, but he almost whiffed at this one. And all the more surprising because Rubio can be a mesmerizing, moving speaker in both English and Spanish. He’s at his best when he’s unscripted, riffing on a theme like a good jazz musician. Unlike President Barack Obama, Rubio doesn’t look natural reading from a Teleprompter, which he used last week.

The awkward lunge for the water bottle, of course, didn’t help either. It became the focus of post-SOTU commentary and the butt of late-night TV jokes. Why, I wonder, didn’t the producers put some water in a glass within arm’s reach? Why did Rubio tape an 18-minute response in Spanish shortly before he gave the live one in English? Why didn’t they crank up the air conditioning so he didn’t look like he was having a flop sweat? Sen. Rubio didn’t get much help from the TV producers.

Nor much help from the folks at the Republican National Committee and however many hands fiddled with the senator’s speech. This one had many fingerprints on it, a something-for-everyone special that resulted in not much for anyone. Most surprising was that Rubio’s compelling life story, which he tells brilliantly, was simply an aside. The main points of the speech were themes recycled from the Romney campaign and the ultra-conservative playbook — the losers last November.

Some of the speech was just plain loopy. An example: “Presidents of both parties — from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.” So far so good. Then came, “But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”

Really, President Obama thinks the economic problems of the middle class are caused by our free enterprise system? That’s hooey. Or “drivel,” as Time’s Joe Klein put it.

Obama believes in the free enterprise economy; he just wants more of the profits to go to the workers, less to the managers and owners. Rubio evidently thinks the current distribution of wealth is just fine. The president believes in an activist, center-left government; Rubio believes in a restrained, center-right government.

That’s a debate worth having and will likely be at the center of the 2016 campaign. The GOP nominee will not be Rubio if he cannot articulate an overarching vision of government more clearly than he did in his rebuttal. Yes, we understand that he believes in smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation and paying down the debt, all valid positions. Too bad he didn’t articulate them better.

When it came to two important issues in the spotlight now — immigration reform and gun violence — Rubio’s comments were vague, non-specific. Even as young people and others in our community continue to be mowed down by easily available semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines, all Rubio could say was, “We must effectively deal with the rise of gun violence in our country. But unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.” Well, that’s certainly a solution, isn’t it.

On immigration reform, Rubio couldn’t even bring himself to mention the “C”word — citizenship — even though he and the bipartisan group of eight senators putting an immigration bill together include that possibility in their plan. The senators’ proposal is not terribly dissimilar from the president’s, but when I asked Rubio about it the other day he was dismissive of whatever Obama’s proposing.

And when the White House’s immigration plan was leaked over the weekend, Rubio called it “dead on arrival” in Congress.

Rubio is currently in Israel and visited Jordan earlier this week. Funny, isn’t that the president’s itinerary, too, in the coming days? A coincidence? Not in politics.

Rubio eschews the label “Republican savior,” but he’s clearly positioning himself to be the GOP’s redeemer in 2016.

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