Marco Rubio and the Real Beginning of 2016

by Reihan Salam

I don’t know if Marco Rubio will be the next Republican president. But I strongly suspect that the next Republican president will sound a lot like Rubio did in the excellent speech he gave on Wednesday, in which, as Ramesh Ponnuru recounts, he described how a series of conservative reforms might better the lives of working and middle class Americans who are seeking to gain skills, accumulate savings, raise children, and keep themselves and their families healthy. What I found most appealing about Rubio’s address is that he didn’t argue that we need government to be more generous without explaing where the money will come from; rather, he touched on the structural forces that are putting low- and mid-skill workers under pressure, and how competition and innovation can drive down the cost and improve the quality of public services. Rubio gave the complexity of the challenges facing American workers their due, and he did it in an intelligent and accessible fashion. He called for modernizing America’s approach to retirement security by allowing all workers without access to employer-sponsored retirement plans to participate in the low-cost Thrift Savings Plan, and he explained how transparency and accreditation reform could give rise to new higher education institutions that can better meet the needs of working students, drawing on the experiences of several of his constituents.

Ponnuru notes the resemblance between the broad vision outlined by Rubio and that advanced by conservative reformers. What I’m looking forward to, however, is a robust contest of ideas, in which all GOP presidential aspirants are expected to offer policy proposals that (at a bare minimum) address the post-Obamacare future of America’s health system; the human capital deficits that have their roots in family breakdown, and which have in many cases been exacerbated by dysfunctional schools and colleges; and the sources of long-term unemployment and underemployment, from regulatory accumulation to a fragile, boom-and-bust financial system addicted to excessive debt. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned tax reform. Though I consider taxation very important, and it relates to all of the areas I’ve identified, Republican presidential contenders have in recent years tended to treat tax policy, and in particular tax rates, as the sum total of domestic policy. This represents a huge lost opportunity. The right now faces a liberal coalition that is intellectually exhausted. Having achieved the goal of near-universal coverage, the chief domestic priorities of the center-left are raising the federal minimum wage and expanding access to preschool, ideally in a way that will expand unionized public employment. There are center-left thinkers who are open to the idea that public services should be designed to benefit those who use them more than those who provide them, but they’ve been marginalized within the liberal coalition as left-liberalism has reasserted itself intellectually and politically. And so the right is where the action is — the only question is whether conservatives are up to the task. 

I’m sure that many conservatives will find much to disagree with in Rubio’s address. But we’ve entered a put-up-or-shut-up moment. Some conservatives, for example, reject the idea of an expanded child credit. Rather depressingly, virtually all of the critical reaction to Room to Grow has fixated on this particular question, an indication that many conservatives really do have a hard time talking about any domestic policy issues other than the top marginal tax rate. What I’d like to know is what tax reform you’d prefer in its place and how you expect to secure a durable majority in its favor. One theory is that conservative tax reformers can improve the tax treatment of savings and investment while using an expanded child credit to broaden the coalition for a more pro-growth tax code. The other theory is … what exactly? That we run on deep cuts in the top tax rate yet again and hope for the best? Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of other ideas, some of which I quite like. Michael Graetz has called for exempting a large majority of U.S. households from the income tax and replacing the lost revenue with a very visible consumption tax. Alan Viard and Robert Carroll have made the case for progressive consumption taxation, a variation on a flat tax. The list goes on. But to attack Stein’s proposal without facing head on the failure of conservative tax reform proposals to resonate with the electorate since the 1990s, when Republican lawmakers championed the child tax credit, is to engage in (as much as I hate to say it) lazy carping.  There are exceptions. Ben Domenech of The Federalist, for example, has suggested that in lieu of an expanded child credit, conservatives ought to fight for replacing the payroll tax, an idea that really is responsive to the underlying political and economic questions Stein is trying to address. Other conservatives need to step up, including conservative lawmakers, governors, and other elected officials who want to shape the future of the right. 

Rand Paul, to his great credit, is talking about the surveillance state and mass incarceration — serious issues that deserve attention. He is the perfect person to start a debate about how coercive federalism has forced all states to raise their minimum drinking age, or how the Controlled Substances Act needs to change to allow states to truly go their own way on drug policy. We know that Paul opposes Obamacare. What does he intend to replace it with? Given John Kasich’s defense of Medicaid expansion, I’d love to hear what he has to say about this as well. Scott Walker made his name as a fiscal conservative, yet the fiscal challenges facing the federal government are profoundly different from those facing the states. What does Walker have to say about the old-age entitlement programs that threaten to crowd out all other federal spending, and what is his take on the future of federalism? This is the conversation we need to have. Marco Rubio has done an excellent job of getting it started. Let’s see who has the guts to follow him.