Jae C. Hong/AP
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks during the Reagan Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011.
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks during the Reagan Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011. Jae C. Hong/AP
T.A. Frank is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
I saw him Tuesday night. I saw Senator Marco Rubio in person as he delivered a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library outside of Los Angeles. I saw Marco Rubio catch Nancy Reagan as she stumbled. And I saw Marco Rubio offering coy answers to the question everyone in the press was there to see him answer: would you want to be vice president?
Rubio, in case you're late to the party, is a Florida Republican who beat out Charlie Crist for a Senate seat in 2010. He's a "Tea Party favorite," whatever that means, and "the most talented speaker in American politics today," according to a recent Weekly Standard piece. He apparently reduces even the most hardened conservatives to adoring jelly.
So I was lucky I got in to see him at all. When I drove up the hill to the Reagan Library, the cars parked along the side of the road stretched back nearly a mile. Inside, a sold-out crowd of about 700, by my rough count, had gathered. "I think people are just searching for somebody," a middle-aged audience member named Nancy Most told me. She was a Rick Perry supporter from the nearby town of Thousand Oaks. "Someone who is young, articulate, good-looking — [with a laugh] from a woman's standpoint — who loves his country."
He is good-looking, that Rubio. Nice smile, too. After he'd escorted in Nancy Reagan (who wore a white suit and looked alert, though frail) and gotten introduced by library trustee Gerald Parsky, Rubio ascended to the lectern. It was flanked on either side by two American flags against a blue curtain backdrop, and bore a presidential-ish seal complete with the bald eagle clutching arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. This was clearly designed to be a test drive, if you will, for the real thing.
Rubio called for a political future that combines "prosperity and compassion." He mentioned "free enterprise" about 40 times. He has apparently decided to bring back "compassionate conservatism," which, truth be told, isn't a bad wine to rebottle. (Just because George W. Bush turned out to be neither particularly compassionate nor conservative doesn't mean that such a combination isn't possible or promising.)
Rubio is known as a Tea-Party candidate, or semi-Tea-Party candidate, but he didn't throw any rhetorical bombs Tuesday. That alone made him sort of agreeable. There were moments when he dared to offer a gram of risky honesty and an ounce of real ideas.
On the honesty part, for example, he admitted, obliquely, that George W. Bush had raided the nation's piggy bank and subsequently beaten the piggy to death. "I know that it's popular in my party to blame the president, the current president," Rubio said. "But the truth is that the only thing this president has done is accelerate policies that were already in place, and were doomed to fail."
And on the vague semblance of ideas part, Rubio clearly said he wanted to phase out Social Security as something unaffordable, something that would bankrupt the nation and harm our children. As for who would be stuck footing the bill for the elderly today while getting screwed themselves tomorrow, Rubio suggested himself and those younger than him. "It really calls a specific generation of Americans, those of us like myself, decades away from retirement, to assume certain realities, that we continue to pay into and fund a system that we will never fully access," he said. "But you see every generation of Americans has been called upon to do their part to ensure that the American promise continues."
Whether you think that's correct or not, it's not a fairy-tale position. Of course, it's also a politician calling for sacrifice through, well, taxation. But let's not get the poor fellow in trouble with Grover Norquist just yet.
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