Politics & Policy

Why Marco Rubio Might Be the GOP’s Long-Awaited Candidate of Ideas

His new book is chock-full of policy ideas and winning support from conservative intellectuals.

The 2016 Republican field so far has been split into roughly three categories: establishment veterans like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and, for a time, Mitt Romney; tea-party favorites like neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Texas senator Ted Cruz; and governors with enviable track records but limited national experience, like Rick Perry and the surging Scott Walker.

Florida senator Marco Rubio — the 2010 tea-party insurgent who then threw himself behind establishment-friendly immigration reform in 2013, now said to be seriously considering a run for president — doesn’t quite fit any those molds.

And he’s unique so far in another way, too. He wants to run on a detailed and novel conservative policy platform, if the book he put out in January, American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone, is any indication.

The need for a new kind of candidate is obvious enough: Republicans have lost the last two presidential elections by worrying margins, and it’s quite possible the party needs both a fresh message and fresh policies to take on a formidable Hillary Clinton.

Rubio certainly isn’t going it alone. A number of his policy proposals and his rhetoric align closely with what’s been dubbed the “reform conservative” movement, a group of policy-minded intellectuals and journalists who’ve been pushing for a new, middle-class-focused conservative vision.

As “our economy is undergoing a dramatic and disruptive transformation,” Rubio writes, we haven’t adapted conservative policy ideas to match the new reality. This is the essence of reform conservatism: applying the values of the Right to the challenges of the 21st century, especially the ones that burden the middle class. Rubio’s vision, which has also been reflected in legislation and speeches over the past couple of years, excites the kind of conservative intellectuals who’ve been pushing these ideas for some time.

“Rubio’s proposals constitute the most comprehensive reformocon agenda to date,” says Scott Winship, a social scientist at the conservative Manhattan Institute. April Ponnuru, policy director at the YG Network, which published a reform-conservative manifesto of sorts last summer, says Rubio is an “attractive, turn-the-page candidate.” The book uses a number of policy ideas that were aired in Room to Grow, especially relying on the work of scholars affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute.

In a speech Wednesday in Detroit, Jeb Bush will reportedly embrace the reformocon label, but he isn’t close to putting out policy proposals and has spent years without doing much policy work outside of education. Kentucky senator Rand Paul has his own libertarian-inflected reform proposals, but doesn’t have clear positions on a number of key issues.

Time will tell how many other 2016 sign onto a new policy vision, and candidates do have good reasons to shy away from comprehensive platforms or specific ideas: Campaign advisers warn they open a candidate up to criticism, while they rarely draw much interest from donors.

In fact, reformocon tax ideas, which Rubio’s book touts, have already sparked some debate on the right. Some believe that, given the benefits gained from Reagan’s slashing of tax rates, Republican tax reform should still emphasize lowering tax rates. Rubio, and reform conservatives, propose a different emphasis: a more efficient tax system and middle-class tax relief.

When Reagan cut rates, the argument goes, the wealthiest Americans faced a top tax rate of 70 percent, and many in the middle class faced rates of 30 percent or more. Today, they say, marginal rates are much lower, and a more obvious failure is the way the tax code discourages investment in families and the next generation of taxpayers.

Stalwart supply-siders argue a plan like Rubio’s, which would provide a much bigger child tax credit rather than huge rate cuts, amounts to anti-growth redistribution. When I asked him about this, he noted a number of growth-oriented provisions in his corporate-tax plan and argues that there’s more to pro-growth tax reform than just reducing the marginal tax rate paid by the highest earners.

#page#Rubio’s book goes well beyond tax reform. Take wages: Democrats have repeatedly pushed for a minimum-wage increase as a way to boost the working class. Reformocons agree there’s a problem, but oppose a higher minimum wage and want to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit or something like it. The EITC is a transfer program for low-income Americans that gets more generous the more they earn (up to a point). That encourages work, but the program is far from universally loved on the right, not least because of its high levels of fraud. Rubio wants to replace the EITC with a more efficient system, called the Wage Enhancement Credit. The benefit would be equally available to childless adults and parents, unlike the EITC, and be paid on a monthly basis, rather than in a lump-sum at tax-return time.

There is, in any case, a role for government — “not a primary role” but an important one, Rubio says — in restoring economic opportunity. The senator takes issue with conservatives who recognize the failures of welfare programs but act “as if programs that aren’t working will somehow be made to function if only their budgets are cut.”

He’d like to replace most current federal welfare programs with a state-run “Flex Fund,” which would maintain the level of federal antipoverty spending but allow states to provide benefits the way they want. A lot of programs for the working poor would be replaced by cheaper-to-provide cash benefits, which Rubio hopes will draw individuals to work. He praises work requirements, a longstanding conservative priority, but it appears that it will be up to states to create them.

There’s a real departure from the way much of the GOP talks about poverty and government benefits. Whatever the party’s nominee said about “the 47 percent” in 2012, “the vast majority of people are trying to make it and trying to get ahead,” Rubio tells NRO. “Government doesn’t have to be the enemy.”

The reform-conservative philosophy of aligning policy with new problems plays out with Rubio’s higher-education ideas, too. Colleges and universities’ high costs and increasingly poor performance stem from the system being “a heavily regulated cartel that uses government to protect itself from outside competition,” he says. So deregulation, of course, is important, but he wants active government steps to fix the problem too, like a new independent board that can certify new online courses that the current federally recognized accreditation agencies try to deny. Rubio has already introduced a bill in the Senate, the Know Before You Go Act, that aims to force colleges receiving federal aid to reveal outcomes and costs, empowering consumers. (Similar ideas are found in a chapter of Room to Grow by AEI’s Andrew Kelly.)

American Dreams is filled with these reform proposals — it’s truly policy-heavy. There’s an Obamacare replacement plan that is more substantive and constructive than the proposals of any Republican candidate in 2012. There are specifics on Social Security reform intended to move the program toward solvency while promoting growth and better serving the poor (here, Rubio draws on AEI’s Andrew Biggs).

The book, of course, is not a complete policy manifesto. Winship says, for instance, he wishes Rubio had tackled early-childhood education, an issue where liberal policy proposals and programs are proliferating without conservative alternatives.

But if one of the bigger holes in his platform is early-childhood education, Rubio is probably pretty far ahead of his 2016 competitors in terms of policy detail and experience.

Rivals whose résumés suggest they could be the race’s policy heavyweights, like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, haven’t done much. Jindal has released an energy plan and a health plan (that many policy experts have criticized as inadequate); Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who passed a revolutionary state-level budget package in Wisconsin, also hasn’t shown any hints of specific policy views and has at times looked unready to tackle national issues.

The risks of trying a specific, innovative platform are real — but so are the rewards. Ronald Reagan is remembered fondly by conservatives for his rhetoric, but spent years laying out his views on national debates and, once in office, used a raft of ideas from a comprehensive policy manifesto put together by the Heritage Foundation.

It’ll take a lot more than a campaign book to give the GOP its next Reagan. But there’s little doubt the party needs a candidate of ideas — and Marco Rubio has a few of them already.

— Andrew Smith is an intern at the National Review Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

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