Rubio: Reframing a conservative agenda
It will take many years for Republicans to live down presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s now infamous remarks about “the 47 percent,” that broad swath of Americans he wrote off as eager for handouts and unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. But Tuesday, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), once widely touted as Romney’s ideal running mate, gave an extraordinary address that offered a very different message — one that could foreshadow the next Republican presidential campaign.
Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010 as a stalwart Tea Party conservative, who drove his moderate opponent Charlie Crist out of the GOP after a fiercely contested primary. Since then, however, Rubio has steered clear of the confrontational rhetoric favored by many of his conservative allies. He has instead been championing the idea that the problem facing Republicans is not the shiftlessness of the 47 percent, but rather the party’s failure to speak to the aspirations of middle-income strivers.
During an address in Washington to the Jack Kemp Foundation, Rubio laid out a compelling diagnosis of the challenges facing American society. He began on a prosaic note, describing how the failure to reform Medicare today will necessitate more stringent cutbacks in the future and how America’s byzantine tax code and excessive regulation stifle growth. So far, so familiar.
But once Rubio started talking about education, and the value of education-for-work programs for students who do not pursue a four-year degree, he hit his stride. His discussion of rising tuition costs, for example, took on poignancy when he said he had only just paid off the student debt he had accumulated in college and law school.
As Rubio addressed the chaotic lives of millions of American children living in broken homes, he didn’t sound like a moralistic scold. He was careful to praise heroic single parents and grandparents. Yet he emphasized that family breakdown has lasting consequences for the children forced to endure it — and that’s a problem the government cannot ignore.
Rubio also made a subtle but unmistakable effort to reframe conservative commitments. Instead of making the case for limited government on constitutional or ideological grounds, Rubio just argued that a big government that takes on more than it can chew is doomed to be ineffective.
So those who want an effective government should want a government that is limited in scope, focused narrowly on what it can do well. This isn’t a message likely to persuade committed liberals. But it is the kind of pragmatic message that might resonate with moderates turned off by hard-edged anti-government rhetoric.
In a moving coda, Rubio paid tribute to “our people,” who toil in kitchens and hotels and in landscaping crews and in late night janitorial shifts, and who represent “the promise of tomorrow.” In a pointed reply to the rhetoric of the 47 percent, Rubio was identifying low-income workers, many of them immigrants, with the conservative cause.
Essentially, Rubio is making a gamble that Republicans are open to a domestic policy message that goes beyond a Reagan-era focus on federal income tax rates to tackling the barriers to upward mobility.
This is particularly interesting because the “our people” Rubio celebrates are not the GOP’s voters — if the November election is any evidence. Romney fared poorly among voters earning $30,000-$49,999, winning only 42 percent of this cohort to President Barack Obama’s 57 percent.
To gain ground in this constituency, Rubio will need to do more than invoke the central importance of the middle class, a term he deployed 35 times. He will have to devise attractive policies. Though Rubio’s address struck all of the right notes, he has yet to find exactly the right lyrics.
Like Romney in the waning days of his presidential campaign, Rubio had much to say about the domestic energy renaissance that promises to boost the fortunes of American manufacturers and workers. But that’s not exactly a bold policy move.
Rubio did tout a number of small-bore policy initiatives, including Flexible Savings Accounts that allow families to save for medical expenditures, a corporate tax credit for educational scholarships and the “Know Before You Go Act,” a smart higher education transparency proposal he is co-sponsoring with Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). But as Rubio would acknowledge, these aren’t the kinds of proposals that can make a huge impact on the bottom line of most middle-income families.
These are incremental steps that might make life a bit better, and there is much to be said for that. President Bill Clinton talked up school uniforms for a reason.
But Rubio’s challenge is bigger. First, he has to persuade Republican loyalists to stick with him as he applies conservative ideas to new challenges.
Older conservative activists who came of age in the Reagan era understand the virtues of low marginal tax rates. They’re less interested in making government more effective and transparent, or modernizing the safety net.
If Rubio is in earnest about pursuing the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, the aging of the Republican primary electorate will prove a big obstacle to an ambitious reform agenda.
If Rubio does manage to win the Republican nomination, he will have to win over voters deeply skeptical of the GOP brand. Pulling off this second feat is at least as difficult as the first — and the two goals are in tension.
There are policy ideas that can pull off this feat. Making the tax code friendlier to families with children, possibly along the lines of former Bush Treasury Department official Robert Stein’s call for a greatly expanded child tax credit, is one particularly promising idea. So is Andrew Biggs’ call for exempting workers over age 62 from the payroll tax, a measure that would increase non-Social Security revenues by almost enough to pay for itself.
What remains to be seen is whether Rubio will be inclined to play it safe or whether he will make a serious bid to revitalize and redefine conservatism for the next generation.
PHOTO: Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introducing presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar