Marco Rubio's second act

Will the erstwhile "Republican savior" really reject post-Goldwater free-market mysticism?

Marco Rubio.
(Image credit: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Because I don't want to damn him with praise so faint that it wouldn't take wet paint off a waterslide, I'll refrain from observing that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is our sanest elected official with an R after his name. I'll just say that he's come a long way.

When Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010, it was as a standard-bearer of Tea Party constitutionalism. He was the fresh-faced, almost painfully optimistic Gen X-er who would smell like rainbows and smile like Florida sunshine and drip marshmallow goo from his youthful eyeballs while reciting the usual clichés about "small business" and "entrepreneurship." Time crowned him "the Republican savior." Oh, how the mandarins swooned.

But there were always hints that Rubio might be up to something different — and better. Unlike his erstwhile mentor Jeb Bush, whose disgusting remarks about finding a "sweet spot" on abortion are worthy of the Clintons at their triangulating worst, Rubio refuses to pretend that there can be any "exceptions" to prohibitions against the murder of infants. His one-time argument that the child tax credit should be doubled and made fully refundable is perhaps the only worthwhile domestic policy proposal made by a Republican candidate for the presidency in my lifetime.

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No one should have been surprised that Rubio voted only reluctantly for last year's GOP tax bill, which, he says, "probably went too far" in assisting large corporations (probably?). I can even tell you that at least one member of his staff supports single-payer health care. But Rubio's recent article in National Review went a great deal further in the direction of an old-fashioned paternalistic vision of conservatism that has not held sway over the Republican Party since the Eisenhower administration. And for this Rubio should be at least modestly commended.

The piece begins with Rubio telling the reader that he became a conservative because he believes in freedom, which he defines as "to live a virtuous and meaningful life supported by family, community, faith, and the dignity of work." This is a (somewhat coy) flirtation with the classical definition of freedom articulated by Aristotle and Catholic theologians — freedom conceived of not as the mere absence of rules allowing us to do whatever we like so long as we can plausibly claim not to be harming others but as the absence of constraints upon our ability to do God's will. From there he proceeds to heap scorn on "elites" who have been "insulated from the disruptions created by globalization." I assume he realizes he is talking about all of his party's donors and, indeed, most of his readers.

If so, he doesn't care. This is because he understands that nobody who isn't sipping cheap chardonnay at Heritage Foundation panel events cares whether somebody is a "pure" or a "reasonable" conservative, whatever that might involve. (In practice, it usually means making bad and vicious arguments in a simperingly polite voice.) In our current "democracy of the fittest," there is no meaningful political difference between the blue and red members of separate tribes that have both benefited from globalist meritocracy, especially for those who belong to neither of them. What Americans want is to hear less individual talents or attainments and the supposedly deserved rewards that accompany them and more about a common good in which we can all participate.

It is worth pointing out that Rubio is framing his argument in the Trumpian language of the nation. Loyalty to one's country is certainly a nobler thing than an obsession with the meaningless abstractions of neoclassical economists, but it is not enough. There are moral questions here that have nothing to do with nations and everything to do with human beings and their inherent metaphysical dignity, to say nothing of our responsibilities as prudent stewards of God's creation. Free trade, for example, is something that we should reject not only because it has been bad for American workers, but because it allows corporations to exploit their fellows in Southeast Asia. The seemingly endless supply of cheap consumer goods upon which our present economic order depends is possible not only because of what essentially amounts to slave labor but also because we are wasteful and greedy and indifferent to the fate of our oceans and rivers and forests.

The question is where Rubio goes from here. It is not nothing for a Republican in Congress to argue that unemployment is bad not because welfare benefits cost money but because meaningful work is, as St. John Paul II put it so beautifully, "the mark of a person operating within a community of persons," to acknowledge that "the global trade that makes it cheaper to buy something at Walmart is useless if it destroys the jobs that pay enough to buy it," and that freedom is not a nihilistic license to define the good but the absence of impediments to its pursuit. These are wholesome instincts. The question is whether Rubio can follow these premises to their logical conclusion in a rejection of post-Goldwater free-market mysticism. Going it alone will not be easy and it will almost certainly be unrewarding.

In a way, Rubio is lucky that despite the empty promises of his campaign, President Trump and his administration are retreating into the staid Bush-era conservatism of lower taxes and welfare reform. There has never been a better time for someone on the right to articulate something radically different. Is this change we can believe in?

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