Apparently Iowa Republicans don't want to make America great again. And that's just fine with the GOP elite, uttering a Monty Burnsian "excellent" over the prospect of Marco Rubio as the party's presidential nominee. The Florida senator is attracting new attention from donors and landing key endorsements in the wake of his third-place caucus finish. A strong showing in New Hampshire would further separate him from the other candidates in the "establishment" lane — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich.
But given Rubio's support from what rival Ted Cruz might derisively call the "Washington Cartel," would he be a same-old, same-old Republican? The Week's Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that nominating Rubio would be "a statement that the party does not need a course correction." More pre-emptive wars for nothing, and tax cuts for free. Likewise colleague Damon Linker argues Rubio would be an even worse sequel to a pretty terrible film, that clunker being the Bush II presidency.
These are not crazy criticisms. Rubio is a hawk, and he does favor massively cutting taxes for rich people and business. Nothing new there for a Republican. But there is more to the Rubio story.
Think about it this way: What sorts of problems would a modern, forward-thinking Republican identify as America's big 21st century challenges? And what solutions would they propose? Such a person might see an economy where technology and globalization generate both opportunity and anxiety for the middle- and working-class. A slow rising tide doesn't seem to be lifting boats these days. While faster economic growth is necessary, it's not sufficient right now to provide broadly shared prosperity and security.
That would be a reasonable diagnosis, one more sophisticated than merely blaming "Obamanomics" for more than a decade of subpar income growth and continued high inequality. And that's pretty much what Rubio has been saying. And when it comes to solutions, a center-right policymaker accepting the above thesis might propose: 1. major tax relief for low-income Americans; 2. health care reform that covers more Americans with private insurance but at less cost than ObamaCare; 3. making higher-ed more affordable while providing more value; 4. updating Social Security to eliminate old-age poverty. and 5. supply-side tax and regulatory reform to promote innovation and economic dynamism. All of which Rubio is proposing.
But not all of Rubio's rivals are dealing as realistically with America's economic challenges, particularly those who would supposedly disrupt the GOP. Trump sells a moldy and fact-free economic nostalgia where tariffs will bring back jobs from Asia and mass deportations will lead to faster rising incomes. But at least there he's offering some sort of plan, as opposed to health care and education. Zip on those fronts. (Note: I do not consider a promise to "knock the hell" out of college costs to be a higher-ed plan.)
As for Cruz, he seems to blame Obama for pretty much all our ills. His health care plan ignores years of conservative wonkery on the issue. He's offered no higher-ed plan of any detail. And he wants to resurrect former President George W. Bush's Social Security privatization plan even though the math doesn't really work anymore. Cruz is super smart, by all accounts, but that intelligence is too rarely reflected in his policy ideas.
Rubionomics certainly has its flaws. For instance: His tax plan — for all its good points — loses trillions and cuts taxes too deeply for the rich, features sure to be politically treacherous if he's the party's nominee. Hopefully the next iteration of his plan will fix those flaws. And I would also like to see an explicit anti-cronyist agenda in areas such as banking, patents, and copyright. But at least he's not trying to bring back 1960s heavy-industry America, regurgitate 1980s Reaganomics, or substitute partisan talking points for serious policy.
Whatever Rubio's pros and cons as a messenger, his overall policy message shows the right path forward for the GOP.