Words vs. deeds: More thoughts on the end of Marco Rubio’s candidacy

March 25, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 25, 2016

Recently, I wrote about the valedictory that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) delivered last week upon suspending his campaign for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. I touched upon some themes — namely, Rubio’s hypocrisy, and his refusal to acknowledge the radicalism of the conservative branch of American politics — that others have remarked upon elsewhere.

But there was one aspect of Rubio’s speech that I don’t think caught the eye of any other commentator. It involved this part of Rubio’s farewell speech:

My parents struggled their first years here. They were discouraged. They even thought about going back to Cuba at one point, but they persevered. They never became rich. I didn’t inherit any money from my parents. They never became famous. You never would have heard about them if I had never run for office. And yet I consider my parents to be very successful people. Because in this country, working hard as a bartender and a maid, they owned a home and they retired with dignity. In this country, they lived to see all four of their children live better off than themselves. And in this country, on this day, my mother, who is now 85 years old, was able to cast a ballot for her son to be the president of the United States of America.

Something about this relatively simple statement of personal history reflects a fundamental part of the concept of the American dream. Because the United States is a land of opportunity, a land of plenty that welcomes newcomers, one implication of the American dream is that foreigners of humble means can come to this nation, work hard, and be successful enough to own their own homes, retire with dignity (to borrow Rubio’s words) and see their children thrive to an even greater extent than they themselves did.

This simple fable — which came true in the case of the Rubios, and which has come true for countless others, but which never becomes a reality for many other immigrants — is a narrative that Americans have told each other countless times since the end of World War II. This tale is also a part of the American narrative that many far-right conservatives have thoroughly and completely rejected. In fact, I would argue that Rubio’s embrace of his own personal history is a major reason why so many Republicans never seriously considered voting for Rubio.

(According to RealClearPolitics, Rubio’s poll numbers exceeded 18 percent among Republican candidates for only about a week in February. In contrast, Donald Trump’s numbers have exceeded 25 percent nearly the entire time since polling began in October; Dr. Ben Carson averaged more than 20 percent for a full month last fall; and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has polled above 19 percent since late December.)

Unfortunately, a broad swath of conservatism has developed deep skepticism about immigration. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 31 percent of survey respondents who identified as Republicans wanted to deport all illegal immigrants, up from 20 percent in 2006. Around 20 percent of independents took that stance in both surveys, while the proportion of Democrats who felt that way actually declined slightly, from 14 percent in 2006 to 11 percent in 2015.

But some Republicans, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), have flirted with the prospect of limiting or possibly ending legal immigration. Walker was an early favorite for the GOP presidential nomination before crashing and burning. In February, Sessions endorsed businessman Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, who has proposed such radical moves as banning all Muslim travel to the U.S. Last summer, Trump and other Republican presidential candidates talked about ending birthright citizenship, which automatically conveys U.S. citizenship to those born on American soil, regardless of the status of their parents. This is despite the fact that the 14th Amendment, which codified birthright citizenship, is integral to the anti-slavery legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the most widely esteemed of Republican presidents.

(Interestingly, Bobby Jindal, who at the time was governor of Louisiana and a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, and who himself is the son of immigrants, was among those who called for ending birthright citizenship — an interesting position, given that it would presumably preclude him and the Republican Party’s other children of immigrants, Rubio and Cruz, from being eligible to become president. This provides further confirmation of my belief that lacking a strong understanding of public policy is not a barrier to running for president.)

Granted, not every conservative wants to end birthright citizenship, halt legal immigration or prevent undocumented immigrants from being allowed to stay in the United States. In fact, Gallup’s 2015 poll found that 50 percent of Republicans surveyed preferred offering illegal immigrants some kind of path to citizenship. But the most passionate and engaged conservatives appear to be the most extreme ones. For all that Rubio charmed GOP establishment figures, donors and reporters, he was really out of step with a key faction of his own party on immigration.

This is to the Florida senator’s credit. What isn’t to his credit, however, is his siding with mainstream Republicans on the kinds of policies that have helped working-class people do what Rubio’s parents did — own homes and retire with dignity.

Rubio’s presidential campaign website had an issues page listing more than three dozen topics; not one of them was housing, although there was room for sanctuary cities (Rubio’s against them) and the sharing economy (Rubio opposes either regulating or taxing it). And the Republican Party hasn’t exactly been friendly to programs that help the less well-off — people like Sen. Rubio’s parents — buy homes. Last year, for example, the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee moved to reduce funding for a variety of public housing programs.

While Rubio called for reducing Social Security payments to wealthy seniors and increasing them for the less well-off — a kinder policy than that held by many of his presidential rivals — he also proposed gradually raising the full retirement age to 70, up from the current age of 67 for those born after 1959. Unfortunately, studies suggest that the impact of such a change would disproportionately affect African-Americans; according to federal data, male black children born in 2013 had a life expectancy of 71.8 years, nearly five full years shorter than that of white male children (PDF — see table 16 on page 85).

It’s easy to understand why Rubio’s mother would have voted for him for president. What’s harder to comprehend is why other blue-collar folks might have wanted to. Since his stated goals and ideals matched up poorly with his deeds and his policy prescriptions, I guess it isn’t very surprising that the junior senator from Florida fared poorly once primary caucusing and voting began.

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