Two of the GOP’s leading 2016 presidential prospects, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, delivered back-to-back speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, underscoring two divergent plans for retooling the Republican party.
Rubio, who took the stage with the music of teen boy band New Direction playing in the background, wants to repackage traditional conservative values with a more culturally savvy spin that will appeal to a wider swath of voters. Paul is capitalizing on the energy from his recent filibuster to talk civil liberties and slam the administration. He made an explicit play for the young voters who had been the base for his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
As the audience stretched their arms overhead to catch a photo with their iPhones, Rubio spoke directly to middle-class voters, promising that he understands they need a champion, knowing they don’t want to take anything away from anyone — an allusion to Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" remark. He asked: “Who’s looking out for them?”
With Metallica blaring in the background, Paul picked up right where his 13-hour filibuster left off, much to the delight of the additional crowds holding “stand with Rand” signs who flooded in after Rubio spoke.
“Mr. President, good intentions are not enough. We want to know: will you or won’t you defend the Constitution?” Paul asked. “If we allow one man to charge Americans as enemy combatants and indefinitely detain or drone them, then what is it exactly that our brave young men and women are fighting for?” It was a pessimistic view of a world where, he argued, American soldiers have fought to protect a Bill of Rights that Obama has ignored.
Paul avoided any mention of social issues, but they made up the portion of Rubio’s speech where he seemed to hit his stride with the audience.
“I respect people that disagree with me on certain things, but they have to respect me, too. Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot,” Rubio said to loud applause. A few lines later, he said: “The people who are actually closed-minded in American politics are the people that love to preach about the certainty of science with regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception.”
And though Rubio spoke on the Senate floor to aid Paul’s filibuster earlier this month, he criticized the Kentucky senator’s more-isolationist view of America’s role in the world.
“We can’t solve every war, we can’t be involved in every armed conflict, but we also can’t be retreating from the world,” he said. He warned about the evils of the Chinese government and said that was the very reason to fight their leaders’ desire to surpass America as the world’s superpower.
Paul, on the other hand, drew wild applause for pledging there would be “not one more penny” to countries like Egypt, which has received additional aid since the sequester took effect.
He followed up moments later by praising the many young, 20-something attendees holding their signs.
“The Facebook generation can detect falseness and hypocrisy a mile away,” he said. “They are the core though of the 'leave-me-alone' coalition. They doubt Social Security will be there for them. They worry about jobs and money and rent and student loans. They want leaders that won’t feed them a lot of crap or sell them short.”
For Paul, that includes the current leadership of his own party. “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” he said. “I don't think we need to name any names, do we?" It sounded like a jibe at Arizona's Sen. John McCain, who recently called the senator a “wacko” for his foreign policy views.
Rubio, by contrast, argued the GOP messaging needs a facelift, not a fundamental restructuring. He said he would be criticized for not offering any new ideas, but that they aren’t necessary. He didn't discuss his bipartisan efforts to craft an immigration-reform package, which he is working on in the Senate.
“We don’t need a new idea. The idea’s called America, and it still works,” Rubio said.