Marco Rubio’s 2013 was as bad as Chris Christie’s was good. The Florida senator’s annus horribillis began with his goofy water bottle problem as he delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union message. It continued when a month later he appeared equally ridiculous rushing to the floor of the Senate to support Rand Paul’s drone filibuster in order to avoid letting a rival hog all the attention, even though he actually disagreed with the libertarian. But Rubio, who began the year at the top of everyone’s list of Republican presidential hopefuls, didn’t hit bottom until he became the target of widespread conservative animus for his high-minded decision to back a bipartisan immigration reform bill. By the summer, many of his erstwhile fans on the right had buried him as a RINO and talk about his candidacy in 2016 seemed to be on hold. Even the senator began backing away from his own bill.
But if Christie has gone from GOP frontrunner to possible has-been in the wake of his Bridgegate scandal, Rubio has a chance to start over in 2014. Though it’s unlikely that many anti-immigration die-hards will forgive him for speaking common sense about the issue, Rubio’s address at the Capitol last week on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” gave his year a promising beginning. As James Pethokoukis rightly noted at the AEI Ideas blog, his “new anti-poverty plan offers a dramatic, even radical revamp of the American welfare state” that attempts to raise the incomes of the poor without falling into the trap of big government.
It’s not clear whether his fine speech and Christie’s downfall will boost his presidential stock, but Rubio may have done more than advance a personal agenda. By calling on Republicans to address how to help Americans mired in poverty, Rubio may have started an important conversation on the right that could help make the GOP the party of ideas again.
Rubio’s approach is based on two accurate assumptions. One is that Republicans cannot hope to win national elections by playing the role of the mean party that likes the rich and considers the poor to be an incorrigible “47 percent” of takers, to quote Mitt Romney’s unfortunate gaffe. Conservatives must demonstrate that they care about people who aren’t rich or well off lest they be written off as the party of ruthless plutocrats who want to take away benefits from the poor. Though the Tea Party movement has raised important points about the dangers of uncontrolled tax and spend policies, the results of the 2012 election should have reminded Republicans that they must do more than say “no” to Democratic ideas; they must offer voters their own plans for helping the disadvantaged.
But there is more at stake here than merely a rhetorical pivot. As Rubio also makes clear, the GOP must offer an alternative to the failed liberal policies that are associated with the War on Poverty. The senator states what generations of liberals have worked hard to ignore when he says the problem with the big-government liberalism that Johnson helped unleash was not its desire to help the poor. The problem was that rather than freeing the poor from poverty, these policies, albeit unintentionally, created a new permanent underclass trapped in misery with little hope of escape. Dismantling it, or at least stripping the federal government of much of its role in anti-poverty efforts and devolving power to the states, as Rubio advocates, offers the country an opportunity to reform a failed system.
As Pethokoukis notes, the basic principles that form the foundation of this approach are irrefutable: the need to create more of the social mobility that the welfare state discourages; to increase the gap between the income of those who work and those who don’t; and to build a more efficient safety net that isn’t run by a federal bureaucracy from Washington, D.C.
These are the key talking points that every Republican should be discussing, especially as Democrats attempt to change the national political conversation from the ObamaCare disaster to a new one about income inequality. The difference between the two parties is that Rubio is proposing a genuine alternative to the status quo while all Democrats are offering is more of the same failed ideas that have done so much damage to the poor in the last half-century.
In the 1980s, Republicans assumed the mantle of the “thinking party,” as they sought to reform the welfare state under the leadership of Ronald Reagan. It’s time they started thinking again. It’s not clear whether Rubio will run in 2016 but no matter what his plans, if he can help promote this sea change away from knee-jerk opposition to all government action to a new era of GOP reform of government, he will do his party—and the country—an inestimable service.