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The Rubio Con

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As I recently noted, Peter Beinart’s Atlantic Monthly cover story married a plausible argument (the American electorate is shifting to the left) with an insane argument (the next Republican president will be to the left of George W. Bush even if that president is elected in 2016.) His argument that the Republicans are shifting to the left relies heavily on the alleged moderation of Marco Rubio:

If America’s demographics have changed since the Bush presidency, so has the climate among conservative intellectuals. There is now an influential community of “reformocons”—in some ways comparable to the New Democratic thinkers of the 1980s—who believe Republicans have focused too much on cutting taxes for the wealthy and not enough on addressing the economic anxieties of the middle and working classes.

The candidate closest to the reformocons is Rubio, who cites several of them by name in his recent book. He says that partially privatizing Social Security, which Bush ran on in 2000 and 2004, is an idea whose “time has passed.” And unlike Bush, and both subsequent Republican presidential nominees, Rubio is not proposing a major cut in the top income-tax rate. Instead, the centerpiece of his economic plan is an expanded child tax credit, which would be available even to Americans who are so poor that they don’t pay income taxes.

Although liberals praised his plan for “upend[ing] the last half century of conservative thinking on taxes,” as The New Republic put it, Rubio included new cuts on taxes of capital gains, dividends, interest, and inherited estates, which overwhelmingly benefit the rich. But despite this, it’s likely that were he elected, Rubio wouldn’t push through as large, or as regressive, a tax cut as Bush did in 2001 and 2003. Partly, that’s because a younger and more ethnically diverse electorate is less tolerant of such policies. Partly, it’s because Rubio’s administration would likely contain a reformocon faction more interested in cutting taxes for the middle class than for the rich. And partly, it’s because the legacy of the Bush tax cuts themselves would make them harder to replicate.

The first thing you’ll notice here is the kind of cherry-picking that people use to argue that there’s no real difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The second thing you’ll notice is that even the cherry-picked examples are mostly wrong:

Rubio burst onto the national scene in 2010 as a self-described “movement conservative” who managed to draw backing from important Establishment Republicans, like the Bush family, and tea party groups. On foreign policy, he has embraced full-scale neoconservatism, winning enthusiastic plaudits from figures in the right-wing intelligentsia, like William Kristol. While much of the Republican Party has recoiled from the excesses of the Bush administration’s wild-eyed response to the 9/11 attacks, Rubio has not. He was one of 32 senators to oppose the USA Freedom Act, which restrained the federal government’s ability to conduct surveillance. He was one of just 21 senators opposing a prohibition on torture, insisting, “I do not support telegraphing to the enemy what interrogation techniques we will or won’t use.” Indeed, Rubio now delights his audiences by promising to torture suspected terrorists, who will “get a one-way ticket to Guantánamo, where we’re going to find out everything they know.”

On social issues, Rubio has endorsed a complete ban on abortions, even in cases of rape and incest (a stance locating Rubio to the right of George W. Bush). He has promised to reverse executive orders protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination and to appoint justices who would reverse same-sex marriage. The centerpiece of Rubio’s domestic policy is a massive tax cut — more than three times the size of the Bush tax cut, and nearly half of which would go to the highest-earning 5 percent of taxpayers. By reducing federal revenue by more than a quarter, Rubio’s plan would dominate all facets of his domestic program, which is otherwise a mix of conventional Republican proposals to eliminate Obamacare, jack up defense spending, and protect retirement benefits for everybody 55 and up. Rubio has voted for the Paul Ryan budget (“by and large, it’s exactly the direction we should be headed”). He has proposed to deregulate the financial system, thrilling Wall Street. (Richard Bove, author of Guardians of Prosperity: Why America Needs Big Banks, wrote a grateful op-ed headlined, “Thank you, Marco Rubio.”)

In sum, Rubio’s platform makes George W. Bush look like John Chafee. To try to get around this, Beinart has to assume facts — Republicans who can win congressional and even the occasional presidential elections running to the far right will moderate themselves in office to accommodate a more liberal electorate, “reformicons” have significant substantive differences from the national Republican platform and have power within the Republican coalition, Republican elected officials will care that upper-class tax cuts don’t produce significant economic growth or pay for themselves — that are the opposite of facts.

Rubio’s ability to convince people in the media that he’s the reasonable, moderate, thinking person’s Republican candidate when there isn’t a hundredth of a cent’s worth of difference between him and Ted Cruz is a real potential electoral asset to the Republican Party. Someone who the media will portray as being well to the left of where he actually is — that’s exactly what you’re looking for if you’re a conservative activist. Whether Republican primary voters will see it that way, I have no idea. And the irony is that Rubio’s unearned reputation for moderation will probably hurt his chances of beating Cruz for the nomination.

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