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Eye On Candidates
February 8, 2016

Choices for the Establishment/Conservative Voter, Part IV: Marco Rubio

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been a leading contender for the Republican nomination for quite a while, a standing reinforced by his strong (and better-than-expected) finish in the Iowa caucuses last week. He is one of the four candidates thought to be able to draw significant support from the so-called “establishment” of the GOP – a large voting bloc, particularly in the New Hampshire primary. The other three vying for these voters’ support are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

As has been explained in the other installments of this series, one question for these candidates is (or ought to be) which of them is best positioned to attract conservative voters to their side, with a focus during the nominating contest on voters who fall in both the establishment and conservative camps. Here is how such voters have been described previously:

In considering voters who fall into both the establishment and conservative “lanes,” LPA assumed that (1) such voters would be looking for candidates with a mixture of experience, electability, and a strong commitment to enacting a conservative agenda, and (2) in areas where a candidate deviated from the conservative viewpoint, voters would have to evaluate whether the candidate would make a serious push on that issue and be likely to prevail.

Earlier installments focusing on Bush, Christie and Kasich summarized their general commitment to conservative views and policy positions, and then homed in on their deviations from what many conservatives consider to be major principles. Rubio is the final entry in this series.

Marco Rubio

With two exceptions, Rubio has a nearly perfect record as far as most conservatives would be concerned. His economic policy includes a significant tax cuts and reform (although some critique it as insufficiently pro-growth, including the Leadership Project for America Foundation’s policy advisors Stephen Moore [here] and Veronique de Rugy [here]); he has generally held a tough line on federal spending and favors a balanced budget amendment; he offered one of the more detailed and market-oriented plans to repeal and replace Obamacare; he’s a co-sponsor of the REINS Act that would limit burdensome regulations; and he has taken a skeptical view of the claims of climate-change activists.

On foreign policy he has favored an active and engaged role for the U.S. in international affairs, and he espouses what are considered “hawkish” views of Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere as well as the expansion of China’s ambitions in Asia. He has been a strident opponent of the Obama administration’s reopening of ties with Cuba, and he has generally favored robust anti-terror policies including the Patriot Act and domestic surveillance issues.

Rubio has been a reliable vote for gun rights and pro-life causes, and his comments on judicial appointments indicate he would nominate judges who favor originalist and strict-constructionist views of the Constitution. His views on same-sex marriage are likely to satisfy many but not all conservatives – he opposes the Supreme Court’s ruling but also says a constitutional amendment overturning it is not necessary and each state should be allowed to determine its own marriage definition. He is also a supporter of school vouchers.

So where does Rubio fall short in many conservatives’ eyes? Immigration and crony capitalism. Here is what the Leadership Project for America writeup had to say in its profile of Rubio on these two issues:


Rubio was a member of the “Gang of Eight” that introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which was criticized heavily by many conservatives because, among other provisions, it provided a pathway to citizenship for many illegal aliens. He has since backed off of his support for a comprehensive bill, arguing instead that a piecemeal approach should be taken, with border-enforcement measures coming first.

Rubio’s overall stance on immigration is that the border should be secured, illegal immigrants currently here should be allowed to remain (presuming no additional criminal activity), and legal immigration should be expanded, particularly in regard to highly skilled workers.

He summarized his position in an interview by saying, “The first two things you have to do is stop illegal immigration, then second you have to modernize our legal immigration system, and then third you can have a debate about how to even legalize people to begin with. And then ultimately in 10 or 12 years you could have a broader debate about how has this worked out and should we allow some of them to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship.”

More recently, Rubio has signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation that would crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. He also said he would end the Obama program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which permits illegal aliens who entered the country as young children to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

Corporate Welfare

Rubio has opposed corporate welfare including the Export-Import Bank72 and the insurer bailouts included in Obamacare, although he has supported subsidies for sugar growers and as a state legislator was instrumental in pushing for a $60 million state subsidy to build a new stadium for the Florida Marlins.

Rubio has also said he believes the renewable fuels standard, which requires refiners each year to blend billions of gallons of ethanol, biodiesel, and other alternative fuels into gasoline and diesel, should continue through 2022, explaining the program shouldn’t be abruptly ended because “[p]eople have made investments in it … it would be unfair to yank it away from them in the middle of it.”

Given these two deviations from what many conservatives profess to believe these days, the question becomes, whether or not a President Rubio would be interested in pushing either of these issues, and whether he would likely experience much success. Over in National Review roving correspondent Kevin Williamson takes up the don’t-worry-about-Rubio-on-immigration side:

Rubio was of course wildly wrong in [the Gang of Eight immigration bill], and he was pretty sneaky, too, as Mark Krikorian has argued. But if your worry is that President Rubio is going to sign an amnesty bill in March of 2017, you should worry about something else: Barring some dramatic and unforeseeable development, there’s going to be a Republican House next year, it’s going to be a conservative one backed up by a lot of conservatives in the Senate, and our hypothetical President Rubio is never going to sign that amnesty bill because Congress isn’t ever going to send it to him, even if he were so inclined – which I don’t think he is.

For those of us who remain alive to the possibilities of a President Rubio, the question is: To what uses could he be put? The first is preventing a second President Clinton or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, the inauguration of Comrade Muppet and His Glorious Socialist Revolution. Second: Immigration reform is still going to need to be done, and Rubio might just be beat up enough on the issue to get behind a robust, enforcement-first/citizenship-never program, designed with the assumption that you don’t have to deport 11 million illegals if you lock up a dozen meatpacking executives and hoteliers on immigration charges. Third: For pete’s sake, the guy’s a conservative, and a young, Latino conservative at that, from a modest background, who could sign a great deal of conservative legislation while being very difficult to caricature as Thurston Howell III….

The real race is between [Ted] Cruz and Rubio, and conservatives are asking themselves whether they can elect Cruz and whether they can trust Rubio. I wouldn’t say that I’m agnostic on the question (inasmuch as I believe the answer to both questions to be, “Yes . . . probably”) but I would say that we conservatives, and the country, would be lucky to have either outcome. We used to say that Mitt Romney is conservative but he isn’t a conservative, which is true enough. Both Cruz and Rubio are self-conscious conservatives in the sense that they are products of the conservative movement, in a way that no president has been since Ronald Reagan. (No, as much as I like George W. Bush, he was the product of something very different, as is his brother, who was a very good governor.) It’s a mystery to me that conservatives are so miserable at the moment, when they are presented with such a desirable choice.  

Somewhat in the other camp is Paul Mirengoff of the Powerline blog, responding to both Williamson and a piece by blogger Mickey Kaus, who takes a much harsher view of Rubio on the issue:

Does this means, as Kaus claims, that “the combination of President Rubio and Speaker Ryan [will] quickly pass an amnesty bill that (like the Gang of 8) contains only the most chimerical guarantees of new enforcement measures”? No….

This would be true even if Rubio hadn’t pledged to secure the border before doing anything for those who are here illegally. But Rubio has so pledged. To begin his presidency by breaking a key promise to conservatives seems almost unthinkable.

A more realistic concern is that Rubio-Ryan will enact border security legislation, getting Democratic support by assuring them that amnesty will follow, and later push for amnesty based on false or inflated claims that the border has been secured. But even this move would jeopardize his presidency. Only if the border actually is secure will Rubio likely support amnesty. In this scenario, amnesty, though undesirable, isn’t the end of the world in my view, unless it carries a path to citizenship.

I agree with Mark Krikorian who says “the odds that [Rubio and Ryan would] try [amnesty] again are greater than we should be comfortable with.” Any odds greater than zero make me feel uncomfortable, and deep into a Rubio presidency, the odds go up.

Both arguments have their merits, but the bottom line is that Rubio seems well out of sync with many conservatives on this issue and it’s difficult to know whether he would or would not push on this issue, either directly with another Gang-of-Eight style bill or the more subtle and difficult-to-stop route of passing an “enforcement-first” bill that in reality turns into an “amnesty” bill.

There doesn’t seem to be much confusion over Rubio’s support for agriculture subsidies, a major form of crony capitalism, however. Last week Veronique de Rugy, a policy advisor to the Leadership Project for America Foundation, had the following to say about Rubio’s support for subsidies to favored sectors of the agriculture industry:

While several other candidates joined Cruz in calling for the end to the mandate and subsidies, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio opted to cater to the ethanol industry after initially favoring the elimination of the mandate. He supported a bill that would end the mandate back in 2013, but later he changed his position. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently:

"Sen. Marco Rubio was one of four GOP candidates to improve his ARF rating from 'needs work' over the summer by publicly embracing the federal ethanol mandate. The Florida senator said Tuesday that the federal government’s agriculture mandates aren’t the same as federal regulations on other industries he is seeking to eliminate. 'We cannot analyze issues before agriculture as being equal to what other industries face, because it’s not an equal playing field,' Mr. Rubio said. 'It’s a very weak industry.'”

This is a strange argument for him to use, since these are the very arguments he thought didn’t hold water when he was fighting against the cronyist Ex-Im Bank last year.

It is also worth remembering that Rubio, unlike Cruz, is also a big supporter of sugar subsidies, another impossible-to-defend cronyist program if you claim to believe in free market and free trade. It actually gets slightly worse. Rubio didn’t just support the sugar programs but offered a downright hilarious excuse for it. According to Rubio, the U.S. can't scrap its support for Big Sugar because "other countries will capture the market share, our agricultural capacity will be developed into real estate, you know, housing and so forth, and then we lose the capacity to produce our own food, at which point we're at the mercy of a foreign country for food security."

Oh boy.

Rubio’s record on crony capitalism is far from stellar (although it does seem confined to the agricultural sector for the most part, unlike Christie and Kasich, who favor distribution of corporate welfare much more broadly). But given his strong defense of agricultural subsidies, it seems likely free-market advocates concerned about crony capitalism have some reason to be concerned that, at the least, Rubio is unlikely to pare back existing programs that have any connection to agriculture.

Should Rubio be elected president, conservatives will likely be extremely happy with most of the policies he pursues. The question mark regarding what he might do on immigration will be troubling to many, however, and it seems certain that any significant scaling back of crony capitalism in the agricultural sector would have to be accomplished over the objections of a President Rubio.