GOP Establishment and the Tea Party: Ships Passing in the Night

Reading the responses to the president's State of the Union speech by Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Rand Paul, one might be fooled into thinking that the regular Republican Party -- represented by Rubio -- and the Tea Party -- represented by Paul -- were in agreement on 90% of the issues facing the country.

On the surface, there is much truth to that idea. But the differences between establishment Republicans and conservative activists go far beyond where each side stands on the issues of the day. The cleavage starts with differences in temperament, and extends to matters of the heart: passion, commitment, and feelings of resentment and betrayal that currently make a marriage between the two wings of the Republican Party impossible to achieve.

There are also differences in vision. Rubio's pragmatic view of Washington is in conflict with Paul's more combative outlook on the role of government in society. And on the specific issue of the sequester, Rubio takes the mainstream Republican position that other cuts can be substituted -- especially for defense spending -- while Paul is of a mind to allow the $1.2 trillion in cuts to stand, even if it means degrading our military capabilities.

Instead of convergence, you have divergence. Instead of unity, you have the real possibility of an all-out civil war that has the potential to blow up Republican chances to maintain control of the House and take control of the Senate in 2014. Beyond that, unless some way can be found to heal the rift, a serious effort to run a third-party candidate for president in 2016 is on the horizon -- especially if another "moderate" candidate is chosen by establishment Republicans.

But Tuesday's responses to the State of the Union by the two men offers some hope that common ground can be found if there is a willingness demonstrated by both sides to subsume the personal and concentrate on the political.

Placing those responses side by side, it is remarkable how they complement each other. Both offer a solid defense of the free market and how economic prosperity, and not government, can help the middle class:

PAUL: What America needs is not Robin Hood but Adam Smith. In the year we won our independence, Adam Smith described what creates the Wealth of Nations.

He described a limited government that largely did not interfere with individuals and their pursuit of happiness.

All that we are, all that we wish to be is now threatened by the notion that you can have something for nothing, that you can have your cake and eat it too, that you can spend a trillion dollars every year that you don’t have.

RUBIO: This opportunity – to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life – it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs.

Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.

Both men have similar notions of how to reform education:

PAUL: A great education needs to be available for everyone, whether you live on country club lane or in government housing.

This will only happen when we allow school choice for everyone, rich or poor, white, brown, or black.

Let the taxes you pay for education follow each and every student to the school of your choice.

RUBIO: Helping the middle class grow will also require an education system that gives people the skills today’s jobs entail and the knowledge that tomorrow’s world will require.

We need to incentivize local school districts to offer more advanced placement courses and more vocational and career training.

We need to give all parents, especially the parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice.