1. Rubio’s speech was fine. It had the correct populist working-class and middle-class focus. Rubio’s speech compares favorably with Romney’s Republican convention speech despite Rubio having a tougher environment.
2. This isn’t a criticism of the speech, but Rubio’s middle-class message needs policies that could plausibly produce tangible benefits for the voters he was trying to reach. The SOTU response wasn’t the place for that kind of policy specificity, but Republicans haven’t had a place for it in either of their last two presidential campaigns, so I’m not inclined to cut a lot of slack. I remember John McCain’s 2008 convention speech where he would make a vague perfunctory comment about some policy and then circle back to his war stories over and over again. Romney’s convention speech was even more shallow and even less effective. McCain and Romney aren’t dumb. They just think you are dumb. It turned out that the Republican consultants misunderestimated the public’s ability to see through their candidates. It is no longer enough for Republicans to mobilize people who have a preexisting affinity for the Republican party and/or fond memories of Reagan. Republicans need to win over people and they won’t do that until they have a set of policies that offer direct, real world benefits to the people they are trying to win over. Neither McCain’s misbegotten focus on earmarks nor Romney tax cuts for high earners, nor happy talk about free market opportunity of American Exceptionalism get there or even come close.
3. If you didn’t stay up to watch Rubio’s speech last night (and most people didn’t), and if you don’t consume much right-leaning media (and most people don’t), what do you know about Rubio’s speech last night? That’s right, you know about the drink of water. The point isn’t about the coverage. What Rubio said is more important in the long-run than any story about him stopping for a glass of water, but there is an important lesson there. The people who Republicans need to win over aren’t going to go out of their way to hear Republicans give speeches. It used to be that you almost couldn’t avoid major political speeches because of the relatively few media choices. Now political speeches are much easier to avoid. The people conservatives need to win over will mostly hear about speeches from conservatives filtered through nonconservative media. The changes in the media environment mean that full length speeches are probably too long to reach their target audience at first. Thirty second ads are probably too short to make an impactful argument to people who lack any context for understanding a positive conservative message. We need ways of reaching people at intermediate lengths between elections to get them to understand the benefits of one policy at a time, and then let conservative candidates for office build on that understanding during campaigns. There is probably no one right way to do this, but this is where conservative donors should be putting their money if they want to change the political environment.