Senator Rubio of Florida yesterday became the third Republican (and the third Senator) to declare for his party's presidential nomination. He claims to be the most forward-looking of all candidates, contrasting himself most starkly with Hillary Clinton, whom he described as "a leader from yesterday ... promising to take us back to yesterday." Rubio's own motto could be, in his own words: "Yesterday is over, and we are never going back." Speaking more generally, he blames enduring hard times and growing doubt of the American Dream on "too many of our leaders and their ideas ... stuck in the twentieth century." Especially old-fashioned in his eyes are New Deal and Great Society style social programs and economic regulations. Those who remain enamored of such policies "do not see how jobs and prosperity today depend on our ability to compete in a global economy" and obviously don't see how "taxing, borrowing and regulating like it's 1999" undermine our competitiveness. In other words, Rubio's big idea of the future is the Free Market. A critic might be excused for thinking that Rubio himself looks backward, only further back: past the mistakes of the 20th century to the 19th century, when "Americans harnessed the power of the Industrial Age and transformed this country into the leading economy in the world." To be fair, the 19th century provides no real model for Rubio. Then, the U.S. became an economic superpower by building things. Rubio promises to restore our economic superpower by cutting taxes, reducing regulations and repealing the Affordable Care Act. Once all this is done, "the American people will create millions of better-paying jobs." Such claims are nothing new. They presume that Americans today are seething with entrepreneurial energies, with products to sell and markets in mind to sell them to, and are held back only by the dead hands of taxes and regulations. Whenever I hear it I say: prove it. Let your business backers tell us how many people they would hire if they were less accountable to the government, and let them promise to hire those people if the Republican gets elected. If Republicans like Rubio and their sponsors can't name specific companies with specific positions that would be filled today if not for taxes and regulations, we'll see their rhetoric for the hot, smelly air it probably is.
Rubio himself knows that the supposedly crippling burden of taxes and regulations is only part of the problem. He acknowledges that many young people are held back not by government but by student-loan debt. He blames "an outdated higher education system that is too inexpensive and inaccessible to those who need it most." Quite reasonably, he calls for "a 21st century system of higher education that provides working
Americans the chance to acquire the skills they need, that no longer
graduates students with mountains of debt and degrees that do not lead
to jobs, and that graduates more students from high school ready to
work." I'm all for that, but how exactly do we get there by cutting taxes, reducing regulations and repealing the ACA? If the object is to control costs, isn't that a form of regulation? And if acquiring certain skills is a priority for national competitiveness, would it be unreasonable to subsidize the learning process, given the obvious national interest? If Rubio plans to depend entirely on the Free Market to give our kids the necessary skills, won't he again be the candidate from the day before yesterday? He and his supporters would say that Free Market ideas are timeless and have no expiration date, but that might be more of a moral judgment than the competitive global marketplace will buy.
The big non sequitur of Rubio's speech was his linkage of American economic insecurity with perceived weaknesses of American foreign policy under President Obama. The nearest this comes to making sense is when Rubio assigns a share of blame for our malaise to "global chaos" that comes when "America fails to lead." The world will be more stable, and our nation in particular more prosperous, when the U.S. "accepts the mantle of global leadership." We will be more prosperous by remaining hostile toward Iran; by criticizing dictators; by confronting Russian and Chinese "aggression;" by expanding the military; and by "giving our men and women in uniform the resources, care and gratitude they deserve." Some of these things cost money -- taxpayer dollars, that is -- but in these cases Rubio can claim to be investing in prosperity. Yesterday was an "American Century" but despite his general disregard for yesterday Rubio believes we're entitled to another American Century and thinks we can have it without our major economic competitors getting devastated by war. Good luck with that.
Overall, I do admire the honest egoism of a candidate who says, "I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot." The nation's future will be decided over the next decade, Rubio believes, and he believes he can help the U.S. retain its "exceptional" identity. He thinks we're exceptional in part because he, the son of an immigrant bartender, might become President. Would he think the nation less exceptional if a Clinton vs. Bush general election appeared to prove the American political order less open to outsiders than he thought? Probably he wouldn't, since exceptionalism is still as much about American privilege as a "free" country among others as it is about opportunity and mobility. In any event, if you don't see opportunity and mobility, you can blame that on government as Rubio prefers to do, or you can admit, as he claims to, that "America doesn't owe me anything." Republicanism appeals to the rank and file because it allows them to blame government for their troubles instead of blaming themselves, but if Republicans and their real constituents get their way the rank and file will only have themselves, or the Republicans' real constituents, to blame if their troubles endure. Then they might think differently when Republicans like Rubio say that their country doesn't owe them anything. Then again, that may be why Republicans never cut government as much they promise. For now I'd like Rubio to say more about reforming education, but beyond that he's got nothing.