Susan Walsh / AP

Republican rebuttals: Predictable punches from plethora of pugilists

GOP upstart Joni Ernst and several 2016 presidential hopefuls weighed in on Obama’s State of Union address

Republican leaders and 2016 presidential hopefuls threw predictable punches at President Barack Obama after his State of the Union address, taking aim at his proposed tax reforms and the Affordable Care Act.

But in delivering their verdicts, opponents also tried a different tack, urging the president to cooperate with the newly GOP-controlled Congress on a set of problems that they should, in theory, agree on — from the plight of the middle class in America to extremist threats in the Middle East.

The Republican Party’s official rebuttal, from freshman Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, accused Obama of issuing “talking points, not serious solutions” to many of the country’s worst problems. Ernst, an Iraq War veteran who was appointed earlier this month to the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke from the committee’s room in a somewhat wooden debut address on the national stage.

She used the occasion to take a swipe at the Affordable Care Act — also known as “Obamacare” — suggesting that Americans conveyed their displeasure for such “failed policies” at the polls last year. “We heard the message you sent in November, loud and clear. And now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country,” she said.

In one of her only other specific challenges, Ernst called on Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline if the “Keystone jobs bill,” as Ernst called it, should reach his desk.

As the representative of the Republican establishment, she sought to strike a cooperative tone on several fronts, matching much of the president’s emphasis on boosting the middle class and echoing his call to close tax loopholes that she said favored the “well connected.” She called for the U.S. to “tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific,” which she said would boost job creation in the U.S. 

“The president has already expressed some support for these kinds of ideas. We’re calling on him now to cooperate to pass them,” Ernst said, framing her party as a willing partner in these efforts.

She also indicated Obama could have Republican support in his efforts to curb the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, saying vaguely that she supported a “comprehensive plan to defeat them.” In his speech, Obama called for Congress to grant authorization for his ongoing airstrike campaign against insurgents in Syria and Iraq.

But this year’s rebuttals were not limited to just one, as used to be traditional. In a possible sign of Republican fracturing ahead of the 2016 elections, several presidential hopefuls as well as the tea party movement opted to broadcast their own video responses to Obama’s speech. Their messaging tended to be more accusatory and to lack the bipartisan spirit that dotted Ernst’s address.

In a response hosted on the Tea Party Express website, Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Fla., dismissed Obama’s speech as “pretty much the same rhetoric we’ve heard for the past six years.”

He called for Congress to “lift the economic shackles of ‘Obamacare,’” urged the passing of the Keystone bill and warned that U.S. allies must pull their weight in combating “radical Islam” and other threats.

On taxes, Clawson said the tea party had a radically different vision in mind — one that is “not based on wealth redistribution but rather on economic liberty, private enterprise and wealth creation that benefits everyone.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a likely 2016 hopeful, delivered perhaps the most dour assessment of the state of the nation, opening his address by declaring, “All is not well in America. America is adrift. Something is wrong.”

Among other grievances, Paul commented that income inequality had worsened under the Obama administration and relayed his party’s popular call for the repeal of ‘Obamacare.’ “Everyone knows our health care system needed reforming, but it was the wrong prescription to choose more government instead of more consumer choice and competition,” said Paul, who was a doctor before entering politics. “Today more Americans may have medical insurance, but Americans are now paying more money for worse care.”

In briefer reactions to the speech, other potential 2016 candidates for the GOP presidential nomination chose to narrow their criticism of Obama to his recently announced tax hikes for the rich. Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida who has announced an exploratory committee for the 2016 race, accused Obama of using the tax code “to divide us instead of proposing reforms to create economic opportunity for every American.”

Mitt Romney, whom Obama defeated in the 2012 election and who is rumored to be mulling another go, echoed Bush’s line. Calling the State of the Union address a “missed opportunity to lead,” Romney said Obama was acting in defiance of American voters who “elected a Congress that favors smaller government and lower taxes.”

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