ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Following President Obama's State of the Union Address, there were actually two responses made by freshman Republican senators. Marco Rubio of Florida gave the official GOP response and Rand Paul of Kentucky gave the Tea Party response. They didn't sound radically different. Both speeches took off from the theme of American exceptionalism.
Here's Senator Rubio.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: America is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious and that everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them.
SIEGEL: And here's Senator Paul.
SENATOR RAND PAUL: America is exceptional because we're founded upon the notion that anyone - in fact, everyone - should be free to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
SIEGEL: And both went on to decry the size of the federal government.
Well, Senator Rand Paul joins us now. Welcome to the program, Senator.
PAUL: Glad to be with you.
SIEGEL: And if you could point me to an idea that distinguishes your speech from, say, Senator Rubio's and that illustrates the rationale for a distinct Tea Party response, what would that one idea be?
PAUL: Well, I don't think there is one idea. I think both the speeches were complementary. I think we were lucky to have two responses. And if you add them up, I think they're a great response to the president's speech. And they both seem to indicate that, you know, big government is not a friend to those who are trying to get ahead because big government's massive debts are causing prices to rise - which, if you're struggling to pay your bills makes it difficult to have anything left at the end of the month.
SIEGEL: You spoke of the impending across-the-board cuts, the federal spending cuts called the sequester, that President Obama and many Republicans say must be avoided. You said this...
PAUL: Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester is far short; that we need $4 trillion in cuts.
SIEGEL: Are you saying bring on the sequester as is or would you support, say, a reduction in defense cut?
PAUL: No, I'd bring on the sequester as is. The sequester, a lot of people don't realize, is not really cutting spending at all. It's cutting the rate of growth of spending. Even with the sequester, over the next 10 years, government spending will grow between seven and $8 trillion and will add nearly that much in debt. So there are as really not sufficient cuts.
Bowles-Simpson, which the president appeared to embrace somewhat in his speech, would cut at least four trillion. And, really, if you had a freeze in spending, that would be a $9 trillion cut and would balance the budget. But it wouldn't be any cuts at all because in reality, none of these are cuts, they're just slowing the rate of growth of government.
SIEGEL: But the U.S. in the fourth quarter of last year saw its GDP contract, surprisingly, and many analysts blame a big drop in defense spending; some of it anticipating the sequester. If there were deep cuts in the...
PAUL: Yeah, that probably is a fallacy and - because if you look at spending in the fourth quarter, spending didn't go down. We've never had a cut in spending in recent history. We may have slowed the growth in spending but spending goes up every year.
SIEGEL: You know, one reading of the two State of the Union responses - which you've been at pains here to say were more similar and complementary than different, in your view - one reading of them is that you and Senator Rubio have begun the 2016 GOP presidential nominating season here. We've seen two of the frontrunners speak on the same night. You're interested?
PAUL: Well, you know, I've said I am interested. And we are thinking about it but probably would make a decision until 2014. I do want to be part of the national debate. I think the Republican Party is in danger of becoming a permanent minority party if we don't adapt.
And I think part of that adapting means we need to embrace more Libertarian-Republican ideas. That means a less aggressive foreign-policy. It means more tolerance on some other issues of other people's opinions. It means we need to embrace immigrants and let the public know that we see immigrants as assets, and that if you want to work, we're going to find a place for you in society.
So there are a lot of Libertarian-type ideas that I think would help the Republican Party to grow.
SIEGEL: Senator Paul, I just have one other question for you. In this season of Republican self-scrutiny after the November election, given your view of how President Obama has handled the economy, how do you understand his victory? How do you understand his winning the majority of...
PAUL: Well, we live in a democracy and people are choose - are free to sometimes choose the wrong leader.
SIEGEL: But how do you understand the majority getting it wrong, is what I'm asking.
PAUL: Well, I don't know if I have an explanation other than that it is much easier to offer people something for nothing, than it is to tell people that in reality hard work and sweat equity is how a country gets rich.
But I think when you bring in people and you make it personal, as far as their family budget, people realize the way you get rich as an individual family is you don't spend more than you take in. You save money and you have money left at the end of the month, and you slowly accumulate that. And a country needs to do that also.
SIEGEL: But we've all had household budgets for the past year and we all know these things. I mean, just personality, skill at speechmaking - how do you understand the Republican loss at the White House?
PAUL: Well, I don't know if there's one explanation. But there has been some polling that shows that many in the public actually judged Governor Romney as being more competent to run the country, but they like President Obama better. On likeability, the president wins. He communicates well with his audiences.
And he also gave them the message that he was going to take from the rich and give to the poor. And there's always more poor than there are rich. So, you can see in a democracy it's easier to sell that message. Our message is harder but I think it's accurate and true.
PAUL: Our message is that he really is hurting the poor because when he borrows so much money he raises prices and he steals the savings of those on Social Security. Their check doesn't go as far, they don't get the cost of living raises and it's more difficult when you're an elderly citizen who relies on Social Security when prices rise. But they're rising because of big government debt.
So that took me four or five sentences and he would respond by saying, I'm going to go get some money from the rich and give it to you. His is a simpler message but its simplicity also is full of fallacies. And we have to promote and explain our message better.
SIEGEL: Well, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, thanks for sharing your views with us.
PAUL: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Senator Paul gave the Tea Party response to President Obama's State of the Union this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.