Fact Check: What Republicans Got Wrong in Their SOTU Rebuttals


The State of the Union, that much-hyped, heavily viewed (often whilst drunk) yearly speech happened last night. The purpose of the State of the Union these days appears largely to be creating full employment for pundits, comedians and fact-checkers (somebody should have jobs) as well as wars within the Republican camp to decide who gets to respond.

This year, the Republicans aired four (!) responses, up from last year’s two (can we expect five in 2015?). The establishment response came from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), while Tea Party Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) gave the Tea Party response. Rand Paul (R-KY) gave the “Libertarian” (he’s shifting closer to the establishment daily) response and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) supplied the Latino response. Given how those who gave previous rebuttals have fared, the clamoring to give a response is a tad surprising.

The Establishment Response (Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers):

It was heavy on rhetoric (likely to avoid a Paul Ryan-esque wonkathon) and relied heavily on anecdotes, assuring us that yes, the Republican party is very serious about inequality and immigration (although its existing proposals belie this fact.)

On inequality, Republicans are in a bind. The Republican party can’t seriously respond to rising inequality without advocating government intervention in the market, which is why they're trying to shift the discussion to mobility. We see this in Rodgers’s speech:

It’s the gap we all face: between where you are and where you want to be. The President talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality…. And with this Administration’s policies, that gap has become far too wide.

Translation: We’re going to give lip service to upward mobility and not do anything about it. The reason this is crazy is because inequality and upward mobility are intimately linked at both the local and national level:

The Tea Party Response (Sen. Mike Lee):

Mike Lee’s Tea Party response managed to link inequality to abortion (?):

Inequality is denying viable, unborn children any protection under the law, while exempting unsanitary, late-term abortion clinics from basic safety standards.

The most pernicious myth in Lee’s speech is the idea that the government is creating inequality. He claims:

But where does this new inequality come from? From government - every time it takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests.

In fact, it is much the opposite. America does the least of any developed country to alleviate growing market inequality.

Further, tax rates, which were once heavily progressive, have flattened out:

This has further driven inequality. The causes of inequality are fairly well established in the academic literature. Inequality is primarily driven to globalization, which creates massive winners, but also holds down wages for the bottom. However, government policies can help distribute these benefits more widely. In America, however, the government has increasingly withdrawn from the economy, allowing the 1% to reap more rewards.

The Rand Paul Response (Sen. Rand Paul):

Rand Paul’s speech (hopefully not plagiarized) begins with the claim that the federal government is expanding over more of the economy. In fact, by every measure, it is shrinking. Revenues (read: taxes) as a % of GDP have plummeted and remain far below the OECD average:

Government spending as a % of GDP is far below other nations and is shrinking (with the deficit).

The number of people employed by the government has declined drastically during Obama's time in office.

Republican talking points are increasingly divorced from reality.