Back in early August I made some loose predictions following the first GOP debate, some of which have turned out pretty well. I foresaw Scott Walker’s demise (though he had been leading in Iowa all summer), Ted Cruz’s enduring strength, and Jeb Bush’s inadequacy though he was very strong in NH at the time. I saw the grievance-based appeal of Trumpism, though of course never thought it would go so far. And I predicted Marco Rubio would win it all.
Rubio took a good first step last night. He had a great night, substantially outperforming every pre-election poll. He has now become officially what his campaign and the Establishment have been projecting onto him for many months without evidence: the only credible alternative to Cruz and Trump.
But he didn’t get here in the way he planned.
Marco Rubio began his presidential campaign borrowing the most successful themes of the historic Obama campaign. This made sense: both were young, first term Senators with little experience, contrasting themselves against eight years of opposition party rule, and trying to overcome older dynastic opponents (Clinton for Obama, and at the time, Jeb Bush and Clinton on the horizon for Rubio (before the rise of Cruz and Trump).
Rubio adopted Barack Obama’s most compelling argument in 2008, which was also his fundamental one: that of generational change. Obama railed against the old economic consensus that brought us the Great Recession and enduring inequality. He contrasted his steady temperament and judgement with the tiresome psychodramas of the Clintons, their cronyism, their cynical triangulation, and Hillary’s misguided support for the Iraq War. His relative youth symbolized an explicit end to the Baby Boomer forever war over Vietnam. His young family and evident embrace of modern pop culture reminded us that it was nearly a generation earlier when the Clintons used Fleetwood Mac to implore us to “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow”.
Rubio learned well from this tactic of spinning youth and inexperience into turn-the-page optimism, vigor, and an indictment of old ideas and stale candidates and outdated arguments. Go back and look at Rubio’s announcement speech, it’s remarkably forward-looking. “Yesterday is over. And we’re never going back,” he said, after identifying Hillary not by name but as “a leader from yesterday, promising to take us back to yesterday.” And if you didn’t get the point, “Too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the 20th century…they look for solutions in yesterday.”
He promised new ideas on taxes, higher education, and on the challenges of the modern economy. He talked well about technology, globalization, and the new demands of the labor force, with no dreary sense of reviving bygone, never-existed glory days. “We Americans are proud of our history,” he said, “but our country has always been about the future, and before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America, but we can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past.”
For candidate Obama, these themes matched perfectly the mood and moment of his party and the country, after eight years of Republican calamity and Bush’s parting gift of an economic meltdown. But for Rubio, these optimistic themes could not have been more ill-suited for the anger and nihilism roiling the Republican primary electorate, and basically none of it survived first contact with the enemy, i.e. Trumpism. Maybe it was naive to think it would ever work. The Democratic party is full of self-avowed progressives, disproportionally young and cosmopolitan. But the GOP is full of anxious oldsters, disproportionally white, rural, and traditional. Why on earth would they be receptive to turning the page on yesterday, which they perceive as a wonderful time, for Marco Rubio’s fearful unknown tomorrow?
So, languishing in the polls along with his perceived main foil Jeb Bush, Rubio started adapting to the frightened and anxiety-ridden id of his party, and adopted the Trump-inspired themes of dour apocalypticism, revanchism, and cultural and ethnic grievance. (Even if Trump fades, which is very far from a sure thing, his influence will outlast him; it can’t be overstated the degree to which the whole party has been Trumpified.) In the last few months of campaigning Rubio stopped smiling so much, dropped much of his turn-the-page generational rhetoric and his paeans to the glory of tomorrow, and he began angrily talk-shouting more. He stopped framing the changes in the economy and modern culture as opportunities, and more as fearful impediments. Now, we are “a great nation in decline.” President Obama is “trying to fundamentally change America” and we are “running out of time” to turn things around.
A few debates ago he started uttering the most odious political phrase of our time: “take our country back”, and it’s become a regular part of his stump speech, along with the related lament that, “A growing number of Americans feel out of place in their own country.” I can’t tell you how much I hate this sort of tripe. The candidate once extolling a “new American century” now seems absolutely terrified by it.
So how does he fit his new theme of fear and ethnic and cultural grievance with his earlier theme of sunny future-looking optimism? With incoherence:
“The fundamental argument I’m making is the best way to confront 21st-century issues is by applying the principles that made us great to the unique challenges before us now.”
So, I clarified, the new American century was really about returning to the principles of the last American century?
“Actually, the principle of the new American century is to make it even better than the 20th century,” he explained.
Rubio has also become a much more explicit partisan in the religious/culture wars in the run-up to Iowa. In a recent debate, Rubio lamented, “We have a society that stigmatizes those that hold cultural values that are traditional” which in Rubio-speak means anti-gay marriage. As we all know, there is nothing more forward-looking than reviving traditional values.
And in the dawning new American century of which Marco is the vanguard, don’t forget to wall yourself off from the corrupting influence of pop culture, you know, like you’re a senior citizen in 1993:
“My wife Jeanette and I are raising four children in the 21st century,” he says. “And we have to work harder every year to instill in them the values that they teach in my church, instead of the values that Hollywood and the media [are] trying to ram down our throats.”
In the new American century maybe we should also put explicit warning labels on CDs or something, amirite?
On the economy and foreign policy, he promises nothing so much as a return to the worst impulses of the first term of the Bush administration. (Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote on this theme today.) His tax plan provides an absolutely massive cut for the wealthiest, including the elimination of the capital gains tax altogether. Abroad, he would open a ground war in Syria, and increase bellicosity toward China, Russia, and Iran, while substantially increasing the defense budget at the expense of all other domestic priorities.
This is all disappointing enough. But what is disqualifying is his Bush-era plan to 1. revive mass surveillance of Americans by the NSA, and 2. send terrorism suspects to Guantanamo Bay to “learn everything they know”, a terrifying euphemism that to me reads as an embrace of Bush’s torture regime.
Unfunded tax cuts, new wars for the Mideast and belligerence for everyone else, surveillance, torture, promotion of “traditional values”. I know the conventional view is that Rubio is the strongest general election candidate against Hillary. That may be true, but if the GOP is foolish enough to run on, of all things, 2002-era Bushism, an electoral disaster awaits. As it should. Turns out there is a whole lot of yesterday in Marco Rubio’s new American century.
UPDATE: Well here is one way Rubio is innovating beyond George W. Bush’s legacy: Anti-Muslim demagoguery! Again, Trumpified. Very sad to see.