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.