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BARLOW: Reforming the GOP message

The rhetoric sometimes lacks substance

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Whoever wrote Sen. Marco Rubio's State of the Union response last week should be fired. Not only was the speech saccharine, sentimental blather, it also failed to say anything at all. It made no arguments, it offered no vision. It simply asserted truism after truism, while farcically mimicking the interest-group pandering of Democrats.

Yet, it seems unfair to attack Mr. Rubio and his staff for the current state of Republican rhetoric. The entire party has not said anything new, interesting or useful since 1988.

This is not an argument for new policies or positions. Regardless of what the pundits say, policy is not the problem. The real problem is rhetorical.

Republicans assert that small government solutions are better without explaining why. They assert that the free market lifts all boats without explaining how. They assert that regulation is harmful without explaining the alternative. Republicans seem to believe that if they repeat truisms about the size of government loudly enough and frequently enough, they will win the argument. They will not.

Underlying the rhetorical vacuity appears to be an incorrect presumption rife throughout Washington: that the American people prefer fluff over substance. It is true that most people would prefer meaningless fluff over a 100-page policy analysis, just as most people would prefer a Snickers bar over a bucket full of lima beans. However, that fact does not mean that people would prefer a Snickers bar over a prime steak perfectly prepared.

Most people want steak; they are hungry for it.

Republicans, rather than taking the time to offer substance, continually throw out Snickers bar after Snickers bar, and wonder why the nation elects Democrats. In truth, calling Mr. Rubio's State of the Union response a Snickers is an insult to Snickers. It was more like the Nerd's Rope of public oratory: inexplicable, floppy and overly sweet.

This needs to stop. Republicans must stop underestimating the American people and start offering substance.

And what would that substance look like?

It would explain how regulations restrain innovation and enshrine the status quo, centralizing power among a wealthy and connected few. It would show how regulations serve special interests rather than curb them.

It would explain how government cannot play superman, no matter how hard it tries, and how the challenge to federal policymaking is not intelligence, but omniscience. It would demonstrate how universal solutions require universal knowledge -- something even Harvard grads cannot achieve.

It would explain how the free market is not only more productive, but how it is also more fair, how government regulation distorts the mechanisms of supply and demand in favor of those closest to power, and how it is the free market that offers opportunity to all without discrimination, while the government distributes opportunity according to access and wealth.

It would explain how it is a fallacy that no one would fund research, education or charitable services if the government did not do so. Instead, it would show how government programs are ineffective and wasteful, yet nearly impossible to change; how government involvement in these areas drives out -- if not directly prohibits -- private enterprise, while bestowing endless funds on the well-connected few; how the government's role in developing the Internet (an assertion that proves too much in and of itself) does not discount the fact that electricity, light bulbs, X-rays, television, cars, airplanes, penicillin and nearly every other life-changing invention were created by individuals without government funding or involvement.

It would explain that, in spite of the tragic stories Democrats parade out in support of their policies, government action does not mean public interest. It means special interest. This is the fundamental source of unfairness in this country, not the success of others.

There is a lot Republicans can and should be explaining, yet they spend five paragraphs of their most-widely broadcast speech talking about mothers looking into their children's eyes. No wonder they are losing elections. It's time to change the party tune, and start discoursing with the American people in meaningful, substantial ways.

Lauren Barlow is a third-year Columbia Law School student.

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