U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio may have had an awkward, amateurish moment in his rebuttal to the State of the Union last night — grace under pressure it was not — but it’s nothing that will do permanent damage to his career. The national spotlight is a difficult place, and you learn how to handle it by living in it. Sarah Palin, for example, never got the benefit of the learning curve that Rubio is now experiencing, and the lack of preparation ended her career.
With that in mind, let’s set aside talk of Rubio’s delivery and take a serious look at the message itself. (Transcript available here.) And let’s start with the fact that in most respects, his speech was a standard, rote recitation of Republican ideology, including a familiar condemnation of President Obama as an enemy of capitalism:
“Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity. But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”
“… the idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle class taxpayers – that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried. More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.”
That is an easily disprovable assertion. Medicare is not a failure; Social Security is not a failure; the GI Bill was not a failure; Head Start is not a failure; unemployment insurance is not a failure. The student loan and Pell Grant programs are not failures. Neither is Medicaid, which among other things insures two-thirds of Americans receiving long-term nursing home care in this country.
These and other programs — almost all of them opposed by Republicans since their inception — have been of immense service to “hardworking middle-class taxpayers” and other Americans. In fact, Rubio and his family have themselves benefited greatly from those programs. As he acknowledged later in his speech, his mother and late father have relied heavily on Medicare to deal with their declining health. Rubio attended a state-financed university, including a community college and the University of Florida, and financed that college education through federal loans and the Pell Grant program.
It is not an exaggeration to say that those taxpayer-funded programs — dismissed by Rubio as failures in helping the middle class — have made his entire life and career possible. College, for example, would have been much more difficult. And without Medicare and Social Security footing the bill, the cost of caring for his aging parents would have had to be paid from his own pocket, significantly shrinking his own economic and career options.
However, when Rubio recounts his personal history, such inconvenient facts seem to melt away. As he said in his speech last night:
“My parents immigrated here in pursuit of the opportunity to improve their life and give their children the chance at an even better one. They made it to the middle class, my dad working as a bartender and my mother as a cashier and a maid. I didn’t inherit any money from them. But I inherited something far better – the real opportunity to accomplish my dreams. This opportunity – to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life – it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington.”
It is a theme that he returned to in his closing, in which he talked of the dreams that parents of today have for their newborn children, just as his parents had for him:
“For many of these parents, life has not gone the way they had planned. Maybe they were born into circumstances they’ve found difficult to escape. Maybe they’ve made some mistakes along the way. Maybe they’re young mothers, all alone, the father of their child long gone.
But tonight, when they look into the eyes of their child for the first time, their lives will change forever. Because in those eyes, they will see what my parents saw in me, and what your parents saw in you. They will see all the hopes and dreams they once had for themselves. This dream – of a better life for their children – it’s the hope of parents everywhere. Politicians here and throughout the world have long promised that more government can make those dreams come true.
But we Americans have always known better. From our earliest days, we embraced economic liberty instead. And because we did, America remains one of the few places on earth where dreams like these even have a chance.”
It is moving stuff, but again, it is romanticized to the point of caricature. These parents “born into circumstances they’ve found difficult to escape” would no doubt welcome high-quality pre-K programs of the sort advocated Tuesday night by Obama, because without it their children would have a much tougher time excelling in school. The earned-income tax credit for working families having a hard time making ends meet would be invaluable to them. Parents working as bartenders and cashiers are highly unlikely to have employer-provided health insurance, so Medicaid would be essential if their children should become ill.
There’s one more very important factor to consider. Rubio’s parents came to this country in 1956, and over the next quarter century, as they tried to establish an economic foothold here, they did so in an era when economic prosperity was more broadly shared than it is today.
Here’s what income inequality looked like in America from 1956 to 1981:
Here’s what it has done since:
Here’s what employees’ share of the gross domestic product did from 1956 to 1981:
Here’s what it has done since:
Those and other profound, structural changes in the American economy have made it much more difficult for modern versions of Mario and Oria Rubio to look into their children’s eyes and dream of a better life for them. Yet, as their son explained to the American people Tuesday night, the Republican Party believes that government should take no account of those changed conditions. “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead,” as he told us. “It’s going to hold you back.”
In fact, we are told, the answer must be to shrink those government programs that — Rubio’s denials aside — have helped himself and countless millions more Americans achieve the dreams of their fathers and mothers. The American people are going to have a hard time swallowing that.
– Jay Bookman