Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is emerging as an influential leader on human rights issues for Republicans. Most recently, he has focused on the fight against human trafficking — also known as modern-day slavery. And while this is earning him plaudits, it might also reveal a growing chasm within today’s conservative movement.
“Rubio’s eloquent and pointed acknowledgement that trafficking is happening in the U.S. is a critical step towards tangible resolutions,” says author and anti-genocide activist Elizabeth Blackney. “After the departure of Sam Brownback, it’s a necessity.”
Others are likely less impressed. In the wake of George W. Bush’s compassionate conservative agenda, and in the midst of economic turmoil, many of today’s libertarian-leaning conservatives seem less interested in these sorts of issues. In fact, some may even view Rubio’s efforts as a distraction. Brownback (the current governor of Kansas), for example, was beloved by social conservatives during his tenure in the senate. Yet his 2008 presidential campaign floundered. Even if there isn’t a penalty for championing these issues, there probably isn’t much of a political incentive to do so, either.
But supporters of Rubio’s purpose-driven agenda are quick to note the Republican Party was founded in order to abolish an evil — slavery. They remind us that the hero to many modern pro-lifers is William Wilberforce — a British statesman who spent his career working to end the slave trade. And they remind us that in modern times, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made the moral case against socialism — and Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” Rubio’s efforts to end modern-day slavery seem consistent with that brand of conservatism.
To those who hold this view, Rubio is a breath of fresh air. What is more, his focus on human rights issues underscores the point that social conservatives care about more than just abortion and the gay issue. “We are a compassionate nation,” Rubio wrote in a anti-human trafficking op-ed, “which understands that our most fundamental freedoms are universal rights. Our words must make this unmistakably clear, but our deeds must back them up.”
Rubio may also be aided politically by the fact that President Obama can be criticized on the issue. The Department of Health and Human Service’s recently decided to end funding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’s anti-human trafficking efforts.
“At a time when the Obama administration, to its shame, has politicized the fight against human trafficking,” says Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University, “it is heartening that Marco Rubio has stepped forward as a leader in the fight to protect exploited women and children.”
So far, of course, Rubio’s work on human rights issues has earned him praise, and not much conservative criticism. (I have begun to notice some conservative criticism about his close work with Sens. McCain and Graham on foreign policy issues.) But Rubio will be on everyone’s short list as a possible vice presidential running mate. Once the political conversation switches from who will be the GOP nominee? — to who will be the running mate? — Rubio’s possible selection may very well spark a debate over the future direction of conservatism and the proper role of government.
A few years ago, Rubio’s human rights efforts might have been noble, but not notable. Today, they are perhaps a profile in political courage.