A weaponized tax code? Why GOP’s SOTU response is a confused mess

Bush and Romney don't know how to talk about inequality — but the Tea Party's favorites won't even try

Published January 21, 2015 7:15PM (EST)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo collage by Salon)

Because he likely understands better than most how the realistic best case scenario for the next two years is gridlock, the State of the Union address President Obama delivered on Tuesday night was more aspirational than programmatic. As I argued in my initial response, Obama sounded more like an outgoing president trying to define his legacy than a chief executive offering a plan for the here and now. But even though the speech often felt like it was more interested in influencing posterity than its contemporaries, that doesn’t mean it won’t have an immediate — and potentially significant — affect on partisan politics. Just take a gander at how some of the Republicans expected to run for president in 2016 responded to see what I mean.

Let’s take a page out of the Gospel of Matthew and look first at the anticipated presidential aspirants most likely to finish last in the GOP’s 2016 primary. In keeping with his continued descent from chiding his party not to be “stupid” to, well, acting pretty stupidly himself, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal offered what was the most churlish rejoinder to the president. Fittingly, he did it with a tweet; and while we all make mistakes, I can’t help but point out that the former Rhodes Scholar’s grammar now also leaves something to be desired:

[embedtweet id=“557693841537777666”]

So that was Jindal’s most noteworthy contribution, which in terms of content and style hovered somewhere between a typical Red State post and a typical Red State comment. It wasn’t what you would expect from someone who was a serious candidate for the White House — which makes sense, since Jindal isn’t. I’m sure the most devoted members of the GOP base loved it, though, so if it ends up helping the governor land a nice spot on the wingnut welfare circuit after he leaves office, I suppose it was time well spent. (I assume former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who also copped to not even bothering to listen to the speech before releasing a statement, is playing a similar game.)

Less sophomoric was Sen. Ted Cruz’s statement, which he delivered via Facebook (and, according to Bloomberg, only after “mangling his words” once or twice). You can watch the video here, but feel free to skip below if you’ve had your fill of Cruz’s timbre and just want to know the gist:

“Previous presidents have been on the receiving end of crushing electoral losses in midterm elections,” Cruz says in the video, somewhat haltingly. He then goes on to slam Obama for refusing to rebrand himself as a Reaganite after getting creamed in an election that featured historically low turnout, and then blasts the president for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” Without a president who uses those words, Cruz argues, the war against radical Islam is one the United States cannot win. (Guns and bombs are necessary but not sufficient, I guess). Needless to say, Cruz did little to change the mind of anyone who believes he’s incapable of tweaking his shtick to appeal to folks outside the Tea Party bubble.

Whether because they’re cynical or clueless (why not both?), Jindal and Cruz didn’t offer much beyond the usual anti-Obama boilerplate. But the candidates I consider more formidable and realistic weren’t as happy to stick to the same-old script. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, for example, had a whole website devoted to his response, which itself went on for more than 10 minutes. Paul repeated a lot of his usual talking points — an incorrect claim that anti-poverty programs fail to decrease poverty, a description of the Affordable Care Act as the product of “a lie,” a vague expression of skepticism regarding military involvement in the Middle East — but also added a notable new line about Obama widening the gap between the rich and the rest.

I expected to see something along those lines from Mitt Romney, who is apparently quite serious about launching one of the most inexplicable campaigns for the White House in recent memory, and who has lately taken to talking about inequality. But perhaps due to realizing that closing the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else is considerably less important to Republican voters than Americans overall, Romney avoided trying to beat Obama at his own game, opting instead to post on Facebook a response that seemed tailor-made to make Beltway centrists like Ron Fournier swoon by  chiding the president for failing to “lead” and urging the government to “simplify” the tax code:

Which brings me to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is still probably the most legitimate candidate to kinda-sorta throw his hat into the ring thus far, and whose response to the State of the Union most clearly highlighted the tough spot that any Republican campaigning on fighting inequality will find himself in. Because most of his appeal to GOP kingmakers is his ability to raise vast oceans of money and his veneer of calm, reasonable and moderate electability, Bush can’t respond to Obama as if he were Cruz or Jindal. But because his potential rival, Mitt Romney, is blamed by many Republicans for losing an election they (incorrectly) considered theirs for the taking, Bush can’t be too reminiscent of the technocratic, corporate plutocrat from New England. His response to Obama, which was posted on Facebook, showed him struggling to find the necessary balance:

Saying it was “unfortunate” that Obama wanted to “use the tax code to divide us,” Bush noted that the recently improving economy has “left behind” too many Americans. Describing raising taxes on the 1 percent as being divisive is a nice touch — whoever came up with that spin deserves a kudos from the would-be president — but, as E.J. Dionne argued recently, it’s still a sign that Republicans will spend much of 2016 talking about issues that are usually the purview of Democrats. Indeed, if Bush’s attempt to rebrand high-income tax hikes as a threat to the American collective is a glimpse at the message he’d send in a presidential campaign, then Obama’s focus on what he called “middle-class economics” has to be seen by his fellow-travelers as an unqualified win. Admittedly, a hedge fund magnate asking Americans not to raise his taxes because he, too, is one of them is not quite as bad a campaign idea as “I’m not a witch.” But it’s pretty damn close.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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