It was the GOP’s official response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union, but Obama wasn’t much a part of it. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) was mostly silent on a suite of Obama scandals and weaknesses.
McMorris Rodgers did not mention Benghazi, the National Security Agency’s spying scandals, Obama’s increasingly aggressive use of executive authority to flout the law, or the Internal Revenue Services’ targeting of conservative groups, for instance.
GOP aides making the case for the softer approach say increasing numbers of voters back home are tuning out political attacks. They also say McMorris Rodgers was trying to outline a positive agenda for the party to give viewers a sense of what the GOP stands for.
The speech came as Obama is at one of his lowest points politically since he became president, raising questions about whether McMorris Rodgers missed a chance to attack the president when he was most vulnerable.
“Ain’t going to beat Hillary with that,” Conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham said on Wednesday.
“I mean these people will slice and dice you,” Ingraham added. “I mean Romney tried that, remember?” She noted that unlike those in the Republican establishment, Obama “goes in for the kill” politically when he has to even though he presents himself as “a nice guy.”
Other GOP State of the Union responders made Obama a centerpiece of their presentation. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), for instance, said that Obamacare was “an inequality Godzilla” in his response to Obama’s State of the Union Address. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) blasted Obama’s imperial presidency. Sen. Rand Paul asked Obama, “Where are the jobs?”
Perhaps McMorris Rodgers’ strongest criticisms of Obama came on health care. Republicans believe that “health care choices should be yours, not the government’s” and that Americans should find “coverage and a doctor who will treat you,” she said.
But McMorris Rodgers did not happen to mention that Obama sold the health care law for years with what turned out to be a lie – that you could keep your health care plan if you liked it. Nor did she draw attention to the disastrous HealthCare.gov rollout or questions about how often Obama met one-on-one with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
McMorris Rodgers strongest statement — “No, we shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but this law is not working” – was missing a key component: a call for repeal of the law.
The Washington Republican’s other major stand was pushing immigration reform proposals reviled by the base. McMorris Rodgers said Republicans were working on “step-by-step” solutions to the country’s immigration system, which will include various forms to citizenship and legalization for the country’s illegal immigrants. To those that believe a massive influx of more foreign workers will be the “final economic blow” for American workers, her proposal seemed to undercut her stated aspiration to combat “opportunity inequality.”
McMorris Rodgers introduced herself to the nation as someone who had “worked at the McDonald’s Drive-Thru to help pay for college” and “at my family’s orchard and fruit stand in Kettle Falls, a small town in Eastern Washington – getting up before dawn with my brother to pick apples.” She mentioned that her dad “drove a school bus” and “mom worked as a part-time bookkeeper” and the “chance to go from my Washington to this one was unexpected.” And she talked movingly about her child with Down syndrome. She spoke of “We the People” and said that she went “to Congress to help empower people, not politicians.”
The speech, and its messenger, were carefully crafted to be soft. Her poll-tested platitudes did no harm, but they may have let Obama off the hook at a crucial time.
Unlike the Tea Party that gave the GOP back its House majority in the historic 2010 midterm elections, the Republican establishment often seems like they are content losing so long as they beat the spread.