Rubio’s Effort to Modernize the GOP

By Peter Wehner

RubioIn an earlier post I asked who on the right, in the wake of the ruins of the Obama presidency, will step up and seize the opportunity. Among those who are is Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Last week Senator Rubio gave a policy address, which elicited favorable comments from Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jim Pethokoukis, and Reihan Salam. Like these four, I found Senator Rubio’s speech, co-hosted by Hillsdale College and the YG Network, to be quite impressive. The Florida senator offered ideas on how to reform our entitlement programs, tax code, higher education, health care, and our social safety net. In doing so, he spoke about single mothers and working class families, wage stagnation, student debt and retirement security, and the effects of globalization and automation. And like Representative Paul Ryan, Rubio understands the need for structural changes in programs, which is quite different, and rather more important than, simply reducing spending.

In making his case, Senator Rubio presented himself as an advocate for modernization rather than moderation (in this instance meaning nudging the GOP in a more liberal direction). He spoke about the need for a policy agenda designed for the 21st century and adjusting to the realities of this new era. Mr. Rubio clearly wants the GOP to be both conservative and constructive, opposing the president’s agenda but also willing to offer alternatives to it. The left, he says, is offering ideas that are old, tired and stale; a conservative agenda, as Rubio has laid it out, is innovative, responsive, and “applies the principles of our founding to the challenges and the opportunities facing Americans in their daily lives.” That strikes me as a pretty intelligent way to frame things, particularly given that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are thought to be the two leading figures for the Democratic Party in a post-Obama world.

What also strikes me about Senator Rubio is that unlike some others, whose main ability is to bring hard-core supporters to their feet, he seems eager and capable of persuading those who are not on his side yet who may be amenable to his point of view. A friend of mine says he gets the sense from Rubio that he hasn’t spent his life in a political echo chamber, only hanging around like-minded individuals. He has the capacity, I think, to reach people who aren’t members of the NRA or the Federalist Society, the Tea Party or the American Conservative Union. The ability to find connection with people who aren’t already supporters is a fairly valuable skill in politics–and for a party that is regularly losing presidential elections, a necessary one.

The governing agenda Marco Rubio sketched out last week will hardly be the final word, but it is a very good starting point for discussion. Its aim is to broaden the appeal of the GOP without violating the party’s core principles. Other Republicans, particularly those thinking about running for president in 2016, will attempt to occupy this space as well. That’s all to the good, since the GOP has a formidable task: to reconnect with a middle America that looks different than it once did.

I’ve pointed out before that during the GOP nomination contest in 2012—involving dozens of state Republican primaries, more than 20 debates, and tens of millions of dollars in ads—issues such as upward mobility, education, middle-class concerns, poverty, strong communities and safe streets, corporate welfare, cultural renewal, and immigration either were hardly mentioned or were discussed in the most disaffecting way possible. There was more talk about electrified fences and self-deportation than there was about higher education reform, social and economic opportunity, or the modernization of our governing institutions.

Marco Rubio wants to change that. So do other talented and ambitious Republicans. More power to them.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Previously he worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

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