[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]
When I described my model for analyzing the Republican presidential campaign a few weeks ago, I began with the cautionary tale of Tim Pawlenty, the candidate Jonathan Chait picked as the most likely Republican nominee in the 2012 cycle. Pawlenty had the virtue of being broadly acceptable to all four Republican factions, but none of them considered him to be their guy. Consequently, even though he made a much more plausible president than Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty was the first man out.
To me, Marco Rubio looks like the Tim Pawlenty of 2016. (538‘s Harry Enten disagrees with me.) There’s no obvious reason he couldn’t be the Republican nominee: He’s well liked by the Corporatist donors. He’s religious enough to be acceptable to the Theocrats, bellicose enough for the NeoCons, and can preach the low-tax small-government gospel well enough for the GOP’s Libertarian wing (which is not to be confused the far more doctrinaire Libertarian Party). He’s young and good-looking, he’s from an important swing state, and he’s got that successful-son-of-immigrants thing going. If you’re a Republican, what’s not to like?
His problem is that none of the factions looks at him and thinks: “That’s my guy.” Jeb Bush is the heir to the Corporatist dynasty and Rand Paul is the Libertarian crown prince. If you’re so anti-Obama you’re ready to burn the country to the ground, Ted Cruz has been leading your crusade. If you’re holding out for a full-fledged minister of the Religious Right, Mike Huckabee is in the wings. Scott Walker seems like the Corporatists’ first alternate if Bush stumbles. So where does Rubio fit in?
The speech. Listening to Rubio’s announcement speech, (See the Time transcript.) I was expecting a serious answer to the question “Why me?” I was disappointed. His answer, when I insert the names he leaves to the listeners’ imagination, is that nobody wants another Bush vs. Clinton election.
Like Cruz and (to a lesser extent) Paul, Rubio casts his own story as a fulfillment of the American Dream. His mother and father came from Cuba in 1956. They found basic working-class jobs, but because America is the land of opportunity, they could hope for more.
My father was grateful for the work he had, but that was not the life he wanted for his children. He wanted all the dreams he once had for himself to come true for us. He wanted all the doors that closed for him to be open for me.
In what could be interpreted as a backhanded slap at Jeb Bush, Rubio said:
I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege.
He pivots from his personal story to public policy in the same way that Cruz and Paul did, and I suspect nearly every candidate will:
My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream. But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible.
This is becoming the question of 2016, and appropriately so — if we take it seriously and don’t use it as just a jumping-off point for promoting whatever policies we favored anyway: Economic mobility in America is not what it was. Unskilled labor is no longer easy to find and no longer pays well enough to buy a home and raise children in it and launch them into a better life. College and other forms of training for skilled jobs has become prohibitively expensive for those who weren’t born at least part-way up the ladder of success. New small businesses — small shops, small farms, small restaurants — do not so easily thrive without capital outlays beyond the dreams of struggling families. What — if anything — can be done about this?
The shrinking of the middle class and the increasing slipperiness of the ladder to success have been issues since the mid-1970s, through administrations of both parties. Carter, Clinton, and Obama didn’t fix it, but neither did Reagan or the two Bushes. So it’s long past the point where either party can just say, “All you need to do is elect us.” Rubio is exactly right when he says:
While our people and economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the twentieth century. … This election is not just about what laws we will pass. It is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be.
And his claim that we need a new generation of leaders rings true.
Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday [i.e., Hillary Clinton] began a campaign for President by promising to take us back to yesterday. But yesterday is over, and we are never going back. We Americans are proud of our history, but our country has always been about the future. Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past.
But then we get to Walter Mondale’s challenge to Gary Hart’s new-ideas candidacy of 1984: “Where’s the beef?” What are these new ideas that Rubio’s new generation of leaders will implement to bring the American Dream into the 21st century?
Now, the time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American Century.
If we reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws and repeal and replace ObamaCare, the American people will create millions of better-paying modern jobs.
If we create a 21st century system of higher education that provides working Americans the chance to acquire the skills they need, that no longer graduates students with mountains of debt and degrees that do not lead to jobs, and that graduates more students from high school ready to work, then our people will be prepared to seize their opportunities in the new economy.
If we remember that family – not government – is the most important institution in society, that all life deserves protection, and that all parents deserve to choose the education that’s right for their children, then we will have a strong people and a strong nation.
And if America accepts the mantle of global leadership, by abandoning this administration’s dangerous concessions to Iran, and its hostility to Israel; by reversing the hollowing out of our military; by giving our men and women in uniform the resources, care and gratitude they deserve; by no longer being passive in the face of Chinese and Russian aggression; and by ending the near total disregard for the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world; then our nation will be safer, the world more stable, and our people more prosperous.
What in that plan does he think Jeb Bush will disagree with? Less regulation, lower taxes on corporations and the rich, less government spending, traditional family values, strong defense, aggressive American leadership in the world. How is that different from what every Republican has been saying since Ronald Reagan?
Republicans can and do argue that those ideas are good, and that previous Republican presidents just didn’t push them hard enough or stick with them long enough. But no one can argue that they’re new, or that they constitute an answer to the unsolved problems of the last 40 years.
In Rubio’s defense, it’s early in the 2016 cycle. It is a time for themes and visions, not 12-point programs. But if the theme of his campaign is going to be that he represents a new generation of leaders for a new century, then at some point he’s going to have to point in a different direction than the old leaders. At some point he’s got to have some new ideas, not just announce the need for them.
Otherwise he’s just making a claim about demography and identity: He’s young, Hispanic, and unburdened by the name “Bush” or “Clinton”. That’s all fine, but I don’t see how it’s going to solve his Tim Pawlenty problem.