Is Marco Rubio the Future of the Republican Party?

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The rising star gave us a glimpse of the GOP's trajectory in a speech at the Reagan Library. If his ideas are any indication, the party will continue on its current track -- against big government, but vague about the alternatives.



Watching Sen. Marco Rubio speak at the Reagan Library was, for me, a bit like watching Kobe Bryant early in his career. Until the Lakers drafted Kobe, basketball players always seemed much older than me. Suddenly, one of them wasn't. Everyone talked about Kobe's promise (through the flashes of brilliance and the air balls). Would he be the next Magic Johnson? The next Michael Jordan?

In political circles, Rubio is considered a rising star. Born in 1971, he's 9 years my elder but strikingly youthful in a profession dominated by old men. Just looking at him, one can't shake the impression that he's offering a preview of the Republican Party's next generation of politicians.

As he puts it, "I grew up in Ronald Reagan's America."

Hey, so did I!

The speech itself, however, was pitched to men and women much older than I. It makes sense. He represents Florida in the Senate, and the Reagan Library crowd isn't particularly youthful. But the effect, for me, was disappointing. Does this guy have anything to say to voters in their late twenties or thirties? It's hard to get excited by the assertion that it's unfair to make any changes to Social Security or Medicare for folks who've reached a certain unspecified age.

Or by more Reagan nostalgia. (And I like Reagan!)

Rubio began with the obligatory bit of hyperbolic Reagan hagiography. "There was something else that defined the Reagan presidency," he said, "and that was defining the proper role of government. He did that better than any American has ever done before." Really? Better than Thomas Jefferson? Better than James Madison? President Reagan was tremendously successful. It is quite easy to praise him without offering an observation that is obviously untrue.

Given the venue, however, let's forgive and move on.

The core of Rubio's message was that Americans share a common vision for the country's future -- the vast majority, he said, want the country to be two different things at the same time.

1) "They want it to be free and prosperous, a place where your economic hopes and dreams can be accomplished and brought to fruition. That through hard work and sacrifice you can be who God meant you to be. No matter who your parents were, no matter where you were born, no matter how much misfortune you may have met in your life, if you have a good idea, you can be anything, if you work hard and play by the rules."

2) "But they also want us to be a compassionate America. A place where people are not left behind. We are a nation that is not going to tolerate those who cannot take care of themselves being left to fend for themselves. We're not going to tolerate our children being punished for the errors of their parents and society."

In the 20th Century, America's leaders set out to accomplish that, Rubio says, but they made a well-intentioned mistake: "Except for the Reagan Administration, to be quite frank, both Republicans and Democrats established a role for government in America that said yes we will have a free economy, but we will also have a strong government, which through regulations and taxes will control the free economy, and through a series of government programs, will take care of those in our society who are falling behind. That was the vision crafted in the 20th Century by our leaders."

Reagan actually shared much of that vision, but set that aside. Rubio says it was doomed to fail from the very start. It was financially unsustainable, he argues. But more importantly, he said:

These programs weakened us as a people. You see, almost forever, it was institutions in society that assumed the role of taking care of one another. If someone was sick in your family, you took care of them. If a neighbor met misfortune, you took care of them. You saved for your retirement and your future because you had to. We took these things upon ourselves in our communities, our families, and our homes, and our churches and our synagogues. But all that changed when the government began to assume those responsibilities. All of a sudden, for an increasing number of people in our nation, it was no longer necessary to worry about saving for security because that was the government's job.
For those who met misfortune, that wasn't our job to take care of them. That was the government's job. And as government crowded out the institutions in our society that did these things traditionally, it weakened our people.

He goes on to say that the 20th Century "was not a time of decline for America -- it was the American Century... we built here the richest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world." But now we can't afford to pay for its government, so change is inevitable, and we have to identify "a proper role for government" to proceed.

A few thoughts:

1) It's jarring to hear, in the same speech, that every president of the 20th Century save Reagan pursued a fundamentally flawed style of government that weakened our people... and that in the same period, we became the best, most rich, prosperous nation in the history of planet earth. 

2) Rubio either ignores or doesn't realize why government began playing a larger role caring for its citizens. a) much of the citizenry demanded a government-provided safety net -- it wasn't a top down thing! b) the old system of private charity wasn't sufficient to care for the poor; c) catastrophic events (the Dust Bowl, for example) and a changing social landscape (urbanization, for example) weakened and made less tenable the old system of private charity too. So the Rubio gloss on history leaves a lot out. This hardly refutes his claims about the negative consequences of a publicly financed welfare state. And if he has a better alternative, I'd love to hear it.

3) But he doesn't offer an alternative. Here is what he says we should do: double down on the free enterprise system; embrace a simpler tax code; reform the regulatory state; invest in infrastructure; empower people to enter the work force; understand that the goal of public policy should be growth. Okay. I'd vote for a guy who ran on that platform. But it is center-right boilerplate. What Republican disagrees? Rubio finally says that he believes in a safety net, including Social Security and Medicare (though reformed in some unspecified way that makes them solvent). But aren't those the kinds of programs that were weakening America earlier in his speech?

Every conservative can tell a story about how America was a freer, more self-reliant place until big government came along, crowding out the family, the church, and private charity. They talk as if we need to dismantle the whole system of social welfare, to re-imagine the safety net... but now that folks are reliant on government, and family ties are less strong, what do they suggest? I know what Milton Friedman wanted to do. I know what George W. Bush wanted to do (a prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, faith based initiatives, privatized Social Security).

What does Rubio want to do? Nothing very specific, insofar as I can tell. He's young, so there's time yet for him to do better. But evaluating him based on this speech, I don't see what all the fuss is about.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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