If the leaks and speculation are credible — and if this evening’s State of the Union address is like every other State of the Union address in recent memory — President Obama will offer up a little something for everybody Tuesday night. The economy might be the central theme, but he’ll also remind Congress of its other assignments: immigration reform, gun control, balanced deficit reduction.
According to top Democrats, though, it will also serve as a reminder that Republicans learned exceedingly narrow lessons from the 2012 election. And it will be a jumping off point from which top Democratic surrogates will tie leading Republicans to the conservative policies voters rejected in November, but which the party cannot manage to shake.
“[T]he Republicans - Marco Rubio specifically, and the majority of both Senate and House Republicans - believe that we should turn Medicare into a voucher program … that Medicare is not a program that’s worth preserving as the safety net it’s been for more than 40 years,” DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz told reporters on a Monday conference call.
The call was billed as a pre-buttal to Rubio, who will deliver the official GOP response to Obama’s address. Democrats acknowledge Rubio’s political talents. Maybe they even fear him. But they also believe he perfectly encapsulates the error Republicans are making by refashioning themselves - awkwardly at times - as the party of immigration reform, while refusing to moderate their positions on any of the bread and butter issues that have estranged them from middle class voters.
“Part of [the point of] this phone call has been to lay out the very different visions the President and Democrats have … from the voting record of Senator Rubio,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), House Democrats’ top budget guy. “They are prepared to shred our commitments to seniors.”
The subtexts here aren’t just GOP efforts to make inroads with Latinos, or to pad the resumes of their favored candidates ahead of the 2016 presidential election. This year’s State of the Union address will take place in the shadow of the sequester - the automatic, across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic spending set to take effect on March 1. The debate over those cuts mimics 2011 and 2012 fights over other manufactured emergencies. It’s driven Republicans, still eager to trap Democrats into agreeing to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare, into a familiar position of insisting on an all-cuts, no-taxes solution to the problem.
But things have changed since 2011. President Obama just won a big election. He will not have to face voters again. He holds an enormous megaphone. And the Democratic Party as a whole has learned a couple things about grappling with these sorts of demands.
First, reject the GOP’s demands. Next, clarify to the public what those demands really mean as far as the country’s major priorities and investments. Third - and this frustrates liberals in the Democratic coalition - occupy a middle ground to pre-emptively claim a mantle of reasonableness rather than maximally progressive policy. They executed that strategy well during the campaign. And as long as Republicans keep using these taxes, they’ll execute it again to trip up the GOP over the sequester.
“Marco Rubio has taken the position that Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security … shouldn’t continue to exist in the form that they do,” Wasserman Schultz said. “The president will outline the need to make sure that everyone needs to have a fair shot.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.