Marco Rubio Is Not as Moderate as He Sounds

The Republican presidential candidate shares Obama’s gift for dressing strong views in empathetic language.

Jim Cole / AP

On the subject of abortion, Marco Rubio is as conservative as it gets. He’d outlaw the procedure even in cases of rape or incest. But he doesn’t sound like a hardliner. “Listen, you’re 15 years-old and you become pregnant and you’re scared and you have your whole life ahead of you and you’re facing this, that is a hard situation,” the Florida senator told Meet the Press in August. “I tell people all the time, ‘Don’t pretend this is easy.’”

He does tell people all the time. This week he told Glenn Beck that, “I recognize this is tough issue and I actually do believe that a woman has a right to choose with her body. The problem is that when there’s a pregnancy, there’s another life involved and that life has a right to live. And so, as policymakers we have to choose between two competing rights.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. Rubio has mastered the same technique Barack Obama used so effectively when he was seeking the presidency. When faced with a controversial issue, he doffs his cap to the other side, pleads for civility and respect, insists that it’s a hard call—and then comes out exactly where you’d expect him to come out. On social issues, Rubio is as predictably conservative as Obama is predictably liberal. What they share is their moderate-sounding rhetorical style.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama recounts telling an anti-abortion protester that, “I understood his position but had to disagree with it.” The man responds that, “I will pray for you. I pray that you have a change of heart.” Then Obama writes that, “Neither my mind nor my heart changed that day, nor did they in the days to come. But that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own—that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that had been extended to me.” Kumbaya! Except, if you care about Obama’s views as opposed to the manner in which he expresses them. In 2008, Obama was more unyieldingly pro-choice than Hillary Clinton. As a state senator, he had voted against a law requiring that parents be notified when their under-age children seek abortions, something Hillary Clinton had supported.

But Obama sounded more moderate than Hillary, because he spent more time talking about giving the people with whom he disagrees the “presumption of good faith.” That’s what Rubio is doing now. When the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal nationally, Bobby Jindal shrieked, “The Supreme Court is completely out of control … If we want to save some money, let’s just get rid of the court.” Rubio, by contrast, declared that, “Not every American has to agree on every issue, but all of us do have to share our country.” He added that, “A large number of Americans will continue to believe in traditional marriage, and a large number of Americans will be pleased with the Court’s decision today. In the years ahead, it is my hope that each side will respect the dignity of the other.” But Rubio still thinks gay marriage is wrong.

Asked in August about African American anger at the police, Rubio responded that, “this is a legitimate issue … we do need to face this.” Many African Americans, he went on, “feel they’re locked out of the promise of this country and the result is the anxiety and the frustration that you’re seeing expressed.” But in between all these declarations of sympathy, Rubio also said that there is not “a federal bill that can fix all these problems.” When it comes to drug laws, in fact, he’s stuck closer to the traditional Republican law-and-order line than some of his GOP rivals.

This isn’t to say that Rubio hasn’t deviated at all from conservative orthodoxy. His tax plan, for instance, avoids a big income-tax cut for the wealthy. But because of the way he talks, observers tend to exaggerate Rubio’s moderation, at least on social issues, in the same way they once exaggerated Obama’s. In March 2008, USA Today announced that Obama’s success with GOP voters was creating a “New Political Breed: Obamacans.” This January, Jon Stewart told Rubio “in your heart, you’re almost a Democrat … You have empathy.”

Once upon a time, the national Democratic and Republican parties produced genuine moderates. Today, they produce liberals and conservatives, some of whom effectively impersonate moderates. And for a small but crucial swath of American voters who hate political polarization, or at least hate the way it sounds, that’s good enough.