To be sure, there are numerous things that Marco Rubio’s anti-poverty speech this week failed to do: the list of omissions run frominsisting on budget neutrality for his proposals without giving any hint exactly how and what he would cut to support them; to not addressing whether his plan to block grant antipoverty programs would end up with the red-state, blue-state disparity that characterizes Medicaid and TANF; to vagueness on how his job training condition for extended unemployment benefits would function in distressed communities that have no reliable higher wage jobs available.
These aren’t quibbles, and some of them leave Rubio’s ideas vulnerable to the charge that they would in practice gut or outright eliminate subsistence for millions of low income Americans in the name of “upgrading” the War on Poverty.
But to enlarge the discussion beyond policy specifics, there are arguably two broader dimensions to the Rubio address, each of which illustrates the challenges Republicans face when they venture into this arena. First, the senator’s context from start to finish was that a (relatively) bipartisan generation of antipoverty legislation amounts to a massive systems failure. Liberal commentators were correct to shoot this overstatement down: a country stripped of Medicaid, SSI disability, Title I education funding and food stamps would not only be fundamentally crueler, it would have inevitably fractured into revolt under the strains of the Great Recession. In the same way that De Blasio style liberals have glossed over the contributions the Giuliani/Bloomberg run made to a safer, more livable New York City, the “failure” critique that Rubio and most conservatives advance regarding the War on Poverty is too glib, too shallow.
This criticism, by the way, isn’t just finding fault with rhetoric. The legislative challenge for a President Rubio would be assembling a coalition of a unified Republican Party and more centrist Democrats to enact a new anti-poverty agenda: and one of the primary requirements for attracting any Democrats into that coalition would be the preservation of most of the anti-poverty regime that exists today. Could Rubio even begin to sell the right wing of his party on such a trade-off if his premise has been that the status quo is a disaster?
And that leads to the second challenge that Rubio tackled, but not forcefully enough. The leading ideological sensibilities of today’s GOP voters are that (1) poverty is not really systemic and is a product of either inept economic management by Barack Obama or of weak individual choices and that (2) stirring up public interest in poverty or income inequality is usually “class warfare” based pandering. Rubio has earned credit for implicitly rebuking this mindset by bringing up the issue at all.
But if Rubio is to keep this sort of thing up–through the 2016 primaries and then as part of a governing platform–he would have to abandon the subtlety and start engaging his base’s inclinations more assertively. Otherwise, the Rubio version of the War on Poverty might look a lot like the Rubio influenced immigration bill in the spring of last year: substantively reasonable and thoughtful, but subject to being buried by the hard core of his own constituency.
There are good strategic reasons why, given the damage immigration reform did to his standing with conservatives, Rubio has switched to a path of advertising boldness without delivering anything terribly bold. It’s a maneuver that may begin the rebranding of the senator as a Republican who could contest Democrats on their own territory, with no real sacrifice on his right flank.
But it’s fair to remind Republicans that the root of the anti-poverty debate is a conversation over what government, and for that matter, the winning side of society owes people who are on the losing end. Democrats may overreach in the answer, but they provide the clarity of simplicity. Republicans at present are in the throes of an internal fight over what the response ought to be. Rubio’s contribution in straddling that internecine divide is, fittingly, commendable and incomplete; a little bit bold, a little bit tepid.