A lot of buzz has surrounded Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), first elected in 2010, as the savior of the Republican Party. The case for Republican salvation through the party enthusiasm and principle of the young Senator seem strong if viewed superficially: He is charismatic, he speaks well, he is certainly telegenic, he is Hispanic (check!), and he is a bona fide Conservative (check!). (Oh, and did I mention he’s young?!) The Republican Party sees in the young Senator a way to reach-out to several demographics President Obama dominated in the past 2 Presidential Elections–young people and Hispanics. President Obama’s electoral coalition–minorities, gays and lesbians, college-educated white women, and younger voters–were sufficiently large and sufficiently behind him that Governor Romney was able to take the self-declared independent vote handily and still resoundingly lose the Presidential Election; but if Republicans could make inroads with young voters and Hispanics, then their currently-daunting electoral prospects look manageable, at least for 2016. So, President Obama takes 72% of the Hispanic vote in 2012, and Senator Rubio gets the Republican Response to the 2013 State of the Union Address.
The problem, simply-put, is that Senator Rubio’s appeal to a larger audience is cosmetic. I’m not saying that he’s an empty suit or that he lacks substance–though that is the same charge which Senator McCain rather curtly lobbed at then-Senator Obama during their 2008 campaigns for the Presidency, presumably because he was young and…ethnic. I accept that Senator Rubio knows what he stands for and has legislative ideas of his own; I’m also saying that Senator Rubio’s substance itself will prove anathema to those voters whose support Republicans need to break out of their current demographic confinement.
A look at the Senator’s policy record leaves little reason to have confidence in his political judgment.
Senator Rubio defeated moderate Republican Governor Charlie Crist in the 2010 Republican Senate Primary. Since his election as US Senator from Florida in that Conservative-Republican wave year, he has usually voted against bipartisan compromises that have passed the Senate by wide margins, and he has taken a stand defending fringe views on a number of social issues. He voted against the compromise Federal budget passed in April 2011 (thus abetting a government shutdown), he voted against the summer 2011 compromise that ended the debt-limit crisis (thus abetting failure of the US Federal Government to pay its immanent bills, which would likely have set off a worldwide financial crash). He was 1 of 7 Tea Party-brand Republican Senators who joined Senate Democrats in voting against the House Republicans’ proposal for spending cuts to raise the debt limit…because they felt the House Republicans’ spending cuts didn’t go far-enough to justify raising the limit. (In truth raising the Federal debt limit requires no justification, since a debt limit increase was necessary in mid-2011 in order to keep the government, and the international economy itself, running.) Senator Rubio voted against allowing employees of Conservative religious organizations to obtain coverage for contraceptives through their health insurance and even sponsored legislation that would have allowed any employer to deny contraceptive coverage through employer-based health insurance if it violated the employer’s religious beliefs. Perhaps needless to say at this point, Senator Rubio also voted against the New Years’ Day fiscal cliff deal which exchanged an income tax and capital gains tax increase on the rich (along with the lapse of President Obama’s payroll tax cut which largely benefited the middle- and working-class) in order to preserve the lower Bush tax rates on the middle- and working-class and permanently index the alternative minimum tax to inflation, among other things.
Senator Rubio’s 2011 National Journal vote score ranks him as the 13th most-Conservative (really the 17th most partisan-Republican) member of the US Senate for that year. His votes were consistently Conservative in all policy areas–and even where Rubio did vote with the Senate Democratic Caucus (thus moderating his Conservative legislative rank somewhat), it was often because he claimed the Republican bills he voted down (such as for Federal spending cuts) weren’t radical-enough. Senator Rubio ranked among the most-Conservative members of the Senate, an anti-majoritarian legislative body that lends itself to large bipartisan majorities on bills that actually pass.
Senator Rubio’s 2012 National Journal vote score ranks him as the 17th most-Conservative member of the US Senate for last year. His votes measured a little less-Conservative on social issues, relatively-speaking, but on foreign policy and the many economic policy votes Senator Rubio he remains among the most-Conservative members of the Senate, continually voting against compromise legislation, and recently against filibuster reform designed to make Senate passage of legislation and appointments easier.
In the face of a large bipartisan majority, Senator Rubio sided with Senate Conservatives to abet current Congressional dysfunction.
Senator Rubio isn’t just from the right-wing of his own party, he is from the marginal right-wing of his own party, part of the small faction of Tea Party Senators who tend to sit-out legislation that passes with large bipartisan majorities. This is the man Republicans gave the prime-time Response to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address.
And how did he handle the response? Many jokes have been lobbed at Senator Rubio’s odd off-camera retrieval of a Poland Spring water bottle for relief mid-speech; I for one was more-stricken with the monotony of the speech itself. Not only did Senator Rubio respond with the same conventional Conservative rhetoric we heard from Republicans in the 2012 Elections, but the Response itself didn’t sound like it was directed to the State of the Union Address; it sounded like a rebuttal to a speech President Obama didn’t give.
“Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.
“But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.
“This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.
“And the idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle class taxpayers – that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried.”
But President Obama didn’t spend most of the time in the State of the Union Address talking about governing taxation and spending policies, or about government regulation of the economy in general. He certainly offered some philosophical themes reflecting such, but he had a lot to say about immigration and gun control, and about the importance of averting the blunt spending cuts of sequestration, which officially take effect in a week. Senator Rubio chose his Response to the State of the Union to re-litigate the 2012 Elections–which as judged by another decisive defeat at the Presidential level, unexpected Congressional losses, and the loss of several State Legislative chambers, the Republicans lost. He didn’t see fit to change the assumptions, the framing, even the emphasis of those old Republican arguments at all. He is, however, Hispanic, and he is able to offer that Conservative message in Spanish.
Is that all Senator Rubio is–a knee-jerk Conservative who speaks Spanish? His recent statements and actions offer no evidence that he aims to be more than that; the choice of whether to remake himself for broader appeal, however, remains in his hands over the years leading up to 2016. In any case, a strategy that aims to stop Republicans’ bleeding with the Hispanic community while doubling-down on every other electoral problem they have is a reactionary strategy–and as David Brooks has already pointed-out, Hispanic voters should not be expected to respond to gimmicks; they actually prefer the Liberal policies promoted by the President.
Because I was aware of his partisan record, I was skeptical when Senator Rubio was chosen to offer the Reponse to the State of the Union; now that he is spoken, I am disappointed by the insularity and rigidity of the Republican Party yet-again. Its rigor mortis affects even its young.