There used to be a neoconservative think tank in Washington, the Project for the New American Century – the guys who gave us the Iraq war. That was established as a non-profit educational organization in 1997 to teach America how things should be. We were the ones that defeated communism, or Ronald Reagan defeated communism singlehandedly, or it collapsed of its own weight. It didn’t matter which it was. The Soviet Union collapsed, and we were the only one left standing, the only remaining superpower. These neoconservatives, Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney and that crowd, imagined a New American Century of our firm but fair dominance over the whole world, everywhere, through either intimidation or the actual use of massive force. That was their concept of leadership, one that has us still hoping for the best in the Middle East. That didn’t work out well, but who else could possibly lead the world? We were it. The matter had been settled long ago. Of the twenty-five who signed the founding statement of ten principles, ten went on to serve in the administration George W. Bush, most notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. George Bush tagged along pretty much working for them – he either bought into this or had no idea what they were talking about – and then 2006 the think tank closed its doors. Their work here was done. They had changed US foreign policy forever.
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected by a nation that had decided those guys were nuts, and dangerous. Obama promised to moderate a bit of that firm-but-fair-dominance-over-the-whole-world stuff. We’d try diplomacy for a change, where we could, as an alternative to snarling intimidation or the actual use of massive force – but many Americans were still uncomfortable with that. The Project for the New American Century did its job far better than anyone thought. There’s Iran. When a country disagrees with us, and does things we don’t want it to do, that’s disrespect. Why talk to them about things? No one disrespects us, period. After all, in everyday life, if someone disagrees with you, you punch them in the face. If they still disagree with you, you kick them in the balls, until they agree with you. If they do something you think they shouldn’t do, you shoot them. You don’t talk things over with them. Everyone knows this.
No, wait – that only applies to a number of white cops and selected unarmed young black men, and to those few guys who shoot abortion providers dead now and then, and to a few white supremacists, and to those who go out and beat the crap out of gay guys for the righteous fun of it, and to Bill O’Reilly in his dreams. There are laws against such things, for a reason. We can’t live in a world like that. We wouldn’t want to live in a world like that.
That’s all Obama was saying. We might want to talk to these people – firmly, without giving up our principles – but talk to them. That’s what civilized people do. That may be what civilization is. We’re talking to Iran. We’re finally talking with Cuba. Thanks to the Project for the New American Century, many are uncomfortable with that and some are absolutely outraged, but others are relieved. Polling shows a majority of Americans agree with Obama here, but Jeb Bush, running for president, even if he hasn’t formally announced that yet, has hired Paul Wolfowitz as a foreign policy advisor. No one will disrespect America, or Israel, and talk is useless. That’s the Republican line. The country may have moved on in 2008, but they didn’t.
That’s why it’s odd that Marco Rubio did formally announce his candidacy on Monday, April 13, while standing in front of a giant graphic with his new motto – Marco Rubio: For a New American Century.
That may have been intentional, although he seems to mean many things by that, and the Los Angeles Times’ Cathleen Decker captures the ambiguities:
Marco Rubio of Florida jumped into the presidential race Monday looking as a 43-year-old first-term senator might be expected to look: a bit nervous, tripping some over his words before he gained momentum. His Miami speech was earnest, his explanation of his Cuban family’s immigrant story evocative.
But his reach for the presidency was something more like a call for generational overthrow of the sort that has ended in presidential victories twice in the last half century, both times by Democrats.
He defined Hillary Rodham Clinton, who entered the 2016 race Sunday, as “a leader from yesterday … promising to take us back to yesterday.”
“But yesterday is over,” he said pointedly, almost quoting from the Fleetwood Mac lyrics – “yesterday’s gone” – that Bill Clinton rode to victory at age 46 in 1992.
He seemed to define his political mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as a beneficiary of a system disdained today by many Americans.
“In many countries the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful,” he said in a jab at the wealthy son and brother of presidents, 19 years his senior. “But 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.”
Then it was time to tug on those heartstrings:
Rubio’s retelling of his family’s history, its one-generation jump from his father’s job serving drinks in a banquet hall to Rubio himself running for president, was the emotional pillar of the 2012 Republican convention, at which he spoke for nominee Mitt Romney. (His story was so moving that night in Tampa that it only underscored Romney’s upbringing as a child of privilege.)
His family’s story worked again Monday night in Miami, both for its content and its locale: Rubio announced his presidential bid at Freedom Tower, the Ellis Island of Florida, where Cuban refugees were once processed.
It’s an amazing story, but of course all other Hispanics here deeply resent these particular Cubans, because they got preferential treatment – immediate citizenship or a special fast-track to citizenship, no questions asked. But that wasn’t mentioned:
“Well, now the time has come for our generation to lead the way towards a new American century,” Rubio said, as if wrestling the torch from more senior politicians.
Fine, but Decker notes what Rubio didn’t talk about:
He gained national notice for working with Senate Democrats to forge a comprehensive rewriting of the nation’s immigration laws. The measure passed the Senate but when it foundered in the House, Rubio ditched his all-in measure for the piecemeal approach advocated by harder-line Republicans. His first moves irked many conservatives; his second made erstwhile allies question his commitment. On Monday, he mentioned immigration only once, without enough specificity to upset either camp.
“If we reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws and repeal and replace Obamacare, if we do these things … the American people will create millions of better-paying modern jobs,” he said in his sole reference to the emotional issue.
And there was another elephant in the room:
The absence in his speech of more than a passing reference to Cuba spoke to a broader conflict at the heart of his candidacy. Rubio is running as the representative of a new generation, but that generation has moved toward conciliation with Cuba.
Rubio, on the other hand, has been a leading opponent of President Obama’s outreach to the Castro regime. So he risks looking like a man advocating generational change while continuing to embrace the Cold War – which may explain why policy toward Cuba received only a glancing mention, albeit one that drew a roar of approval from the hometown audience.
“And if America once again 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, the 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, especially Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, if we did these things then our nation will be safer, the world more stable and our people more prosperous,” he said.
Dick Cheney couldn’t have said it better, but Rubio’s chances are slim:
Bush is looking to overwhelm his rivals in the large field and worm his way into the hearts of Republican voters with the overwhelming fundraising effort he has pressed in recent months. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is seeking the mantle of conservative chief executive who thumped a GOP enemy, organized labor. Several candidates are vying for the evangelical vote.
Rubio has neither Bush’s money, Walker’s executive record, or – as a practicing Catholic – the loyalty of evangelical Christians who play an outsized role in the early voting, especially in the lead-off Iowa caucuses.
Yes, Real Christians™ don’t cotton to any church that has a Pope, and this new Pope is a pain in the ass, with all his calls for social justice and economic justice, and with his making nice with evil sinners – gays and atheists and even Muslims now and then. This Pope seems reluctant to bring down God’s Hammer and smite the wicked. Marco Rubio, however, can’t do anything about that, and he’s lost the Tea Party too:
Six years after the movement’s initial rallies, marches, and demonstrations, Tea Party activists feel let down and betrayed by their native son.
“I’m through with him. He will never get my vote. ‘Disappointed’ would mean that he has an opportunity to restore his credibility, and there is no opportunity for that,” said Kris-Anne Hall, an attorney and Tea Party activist from north-central Florida. “The overwhelming perception is that Marco Rubio is not a Tea Party candidate.”
Some Florida Tea Party supporters still wax nostalgic about the early, hopeful days of the Rubio Senate campaign.
“When he was first running for Senate, I was a big fan… He walked the neighborhood both inside and outside his district, knocked on doors and asked what people’s needs were, what their issues were. I was so impressed with that,” said Lisa Becker, who helped run A Sisterhood of Mommy Patriots, a Tea Party group geared toward mothers.
“Then,” Becker continued, “He got into office.”
That was the problem:
Many Tea Partiers point to Rubio’s work in the Senate as part of the so-called Gang of Eight, who tried to come to a bipartisan consensus on comprehensive immigration reform. It ultimately failed, but many on the right will not forgive what they disdain as the senator’s support for “amnesty.”
At the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, Rubio tried to distance himself from his work on immigration, saying he had learned his lesson—that broad-based reform was only possible after complete border security.
Some libertarian-leaning Tea Party activists also point to foreign policy and national security as issues on which he let them down. Hall, the attorney from north-central Florida, listed off the offenses: Rubio’s support for indefinite detention, support for arming the Syrian rebels, support for the war against ISIS without explicit congressional approval, and support for the NSA.
“If he had been listening when he was knocking on those doors, he would have found out what matters. Being in perpetual war matters to families,” Becker said.
There’s no satisfying some people, and Paul Waldman adds this:
The characteristics of the Republican field could make Rubio everyone’s second choice. If you’re a tea partier looking for the most conservative candidate, you might gravitate to Ted Cruz or Scott Walker. Though the actual policy differences between them and Rubio are somewhere between tiny and non-existent, Rubio’s rhetoric isn’t nearly as belligerent, so many base voters will assume he’s isn’t quite so far to the right. If you’re a Christian conservative looking for the most religious candidate, there are many others (Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal) making more of a direct pitch for your votes. If you’re more of a libertarian, you’ll gravitate toward Rand Paul. If you’re a moderate seeking a safe, traditional candidate, Jeb Bush is your man. Rubio could end up being the candidate everyone feels warmly about but relatively few end up voting for.
That’s just the way things are:
We often describe the GOP primary process as a battle between these factions, with each one settling on their favored candidate, then begrudgingly accepting the results when another faction’s champion prevails. It’s probably a bit overstated – there are going to be at least some people of different types voting for most of the contenders – but the last few years have seen especially bitter conflicts within the Republican Party. I have argued before that the most likely nominee is the one who can bridge those gaps, particularly the biggest one, between the tea party base and the more pragmatic establishment. Even if no candidate can be all things to all factions, you can’t win the nomination without a healthy chunk of all the major Republican groups.
There are some reasons to think Rubio could do that, but much of what makes him compelling is better suited to the general election than the primaries. He’s a smart guy who can be compelling on the stump and charming in small groups. The fact that the Tea Party cast him out when he wrote a comprehensive immigration reform bill could be a benefit in the general, as it would enable him to portray himself as a moderate (even if he eventually reversed himself on immigration and now advocates the same “border security first” position as most every other Republican). …
But in a party at war with itself, Rubio has no natural constituency to build from. In this field, he’s not the most anything: not the most partisan, not the most anti-government, not the most socially conservative, not the most beloved by Republican elites. All of which means he could be setting himself up to be the perfect vice-presidential candidate. At only 43 years old, he could do a lot worse.
And Ed Kilgore notes that the guy does have his appeal:
If his campaign never really takes off, it will be attributed to Bush’s strength rather than Rubio’s weakness. And for a dark horse, he’s very well positioned, with surprisingly strong approval/disapproval ratios in the early states – a sign the “base” is ready to accept his backtracking on immigration reform – and the possibility of replacing either Bush – whose own numbers remain questionable – or Scott Walker – one big gaffe or indictment away from Palookaville – in the first tier of candidates.
On top of all that, he’s the candidate Republican Establishment elites are almost certain to drool over if Jebbie blows up or fades. He’s the symbol of change in the GOP, without really making many concessions that strain conservative orthodoxy.
Rubio did abandon his politically damaging commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, but Brian Beutler points out here that he’s also pre-abandoned his commitment to any kind of even halfhearted conservative anti-poverty strategy:
Nothing captures Rubio’s irreconcilable commitments quite like the evolution of his plan to reform the tax code. From the outset, Rubio never intended to sideline the interests of the wealthy. As originally conceived, his tax plan would’ve paired modest middle class benefits with very large tax cuts for high earners, much like George W. Bush’s first big tax cut in 2001. But when conservatives voiced dissatisfaction with that particular distribution, Rubio responded not by telling them to buzz off, or by eliminating the middle-income benefits and plying the savings into further high-end tax cuts. He kept the benefits, and layered hugely regressive additional tax cuts for the wealthy on top of an already unaffordable plan. What once would have increased deficits by $2.4 trillion over a decade, according to the Tax Policy Center, would now increase them by trillions more. The beneficiaries would be investors, who would no longer pay any tax on capital gains and dividends, and wealthy families, whose enormous bequests would be subject to no tax either.
Unbelievably, this play to have it both ways still doesn’t satisfy supply-siders. “This business side of the plan is pretty darn good and I like it,” Larry Kudlow told Politico’s Ben White. “The personal side of it is a mess and will be politically and economically indefensible and he is going to take tremendous criticism for it and my guess is he will have to back off it very fast.”
Ed Kilgore adds this:
So Rubio has already surrendered to the status quo to the extent that he packages an even larger boon to the wealthy than other Republicans in order to but acceptance for some “family-friendly tax credits.” But conservatives are demanding more, and there are no indications as of yet that Rubio will deny them.
All this dubious maneuvering actually looks worse when you contrast it to Rubio’s impressive lack of nuance when it comes to foreign policy, where he’s a full-on champion of every Neocon position. No matter where you stand on domestic or foreign policy, you get the sense that’s what makes Young Marco’s heart go pitty-pat. Those who are impressed by the heterodoxy of positions he’s already abandoned might want to think about that more carefully.
The blogger BooMan goes further:
Everyone keeps trying to tell me that I need to pay attention to Marco Rubio, but I have no idea why. I understand that the guy doesn’t look like a decrepit old horse and that he’s supposed to have some kind of nominal appeal to Latinos, but he’s about as substantive as Fred Thompson and at least as crooked as Senator Bob Menendez. Furthermore, his one political claim to fame is being a point man on the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform plan…
What Beutler is (too) politely pointing out is that Rubio has managed to propose the biggest, most regressive, most budget-busting tax cuts in history, all while in the guise of standing up to the supply-siders and sticking up for the struggling middle class. Beutler calls him the most ‘disingenuous’ candidate in the race, which would, if true, be something like running a two-minute mile.
So, maybe it is true. Who can really say, though? It’s not like Mitt Romney didn’t set several Guinness Book world records for disingenuousness the last go-round, and look where there that got him.
Anyway, smart people are telling me that I really only need to pay attention to three candidates: Jeb, Scott Walker, and Rubio. I understand the first two, but I’m still not getting the third.
That sounds about right. Marco Rubio, for a New American Century… Someone should tell him that century started fifteen years ago. Maybe he missed it.