WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio fleshed out a vision of his policy plans Tuesday that focused on strengthening the middle class by expanding economic growth and ensuring that American workers are sufficiently skilled, trying on a policy agenda that Americans may see a lot of in 2016.
It’s a theme Rubio has hit on many times before, particularly in his role as a surrogate for Mitt Romney during the campaign, and one he expanded upon in his first foray into presidential politics during a trip to Iowa several weeks ago. (RELATED: Rubio shatters fundraising record at Iowa governor’s birthday event)
But Rubio, who was accepting the Jack Kemp Foundation Leadership Award, mentioned some specifics about his agenda for the first time, spelling out his prescriptions for what government needs to do in order to promote the success of the middle class.
“The existence of a large and vibrant American middle class goes to the very essence of America’s exceptional identity,” Rubio said. “Every country has rich people. But only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class. And in the history of the world, none has been more vibrant and more stable than the American middle class.”
“One of the fundamental challenges before us,” Rubio said, “is to find an appropriate and sustainable role for government in closing this gap between the dreams of millions of Americans and the opportunities for them to actually realize them.”
The Florida senator identified two specific problems that he said need solving: The “American economy is not creating enough jobs,” and Americans do not have the skills necessary to do many of the jobs that are available.
In the immediate future, Rubio said, Congress and the White House need to reach an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff that includes a plan to pay down the national debt, reform entitlements like Medicare, simplify the tax code and avoid raising tax rates.
High tax rates, Rubio said, would only hurt small businesses and the middle class. (RELATED — Paul Ryan on fiscal cliff negotiations: ‘We’re nowhere’)
To spur economic growth, Rubio proposed decreasing “excessive regulation,” increasing domestic energy production and introducing a “predictable monetary policy.”
Rubio proposed a health care system with a Flexible Savings Account in the mold of Congress’s health plan, which “allows families to save tax free money to pay for medical bills.”
The government, Rubio said, should “expand the number of community health centers, as well as work with hospitals to find the best way to integrate them with their emergency rooms to try and get non-life threatening walk-ins to seek treatment there.”
To ensure that Americans are adequately prepared to enter the workforce, Rubio proposed “state level curriculum reform and new investment in continuing teacher training” to improve elementary and secondary schools, school choice as a means of getting kids out of failing public schools and expanded technical and vocational education.
He also suggested a move away from the four-year college model, and increased incorporation of online education to bring down the cost of tuition. (RELATED — Bill Gates: Jobs are available, but America’s education system is failing workers)
Rubio argued the student loan system needs to be reformed, so that people don’t finish their education with debt that takes them decades to pay off.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is we are trying to prepare 21st-century students using a 20th-century education model. Now is the time to be creative, innovative and daring in reforming the way we provide our people the skills they need to make it to the middle class.”
Just as important, Rubio said, is encouraging stable home life and family structure.
“Widespread societal breakdown is not something government can solve, and yet it is one that the government cannot ignore,” Rubio said. “We cannot separate the economic well-being of our people from their social well-being.”
The government’s role in addressing such problems, Rubio said, is “limited, yet important.”
“Rather than pretend we know the answer, we should start by engaging those who do important work every day in mentoring young people and leading them on the right path: their teachers, coaches, parents, priests and pastors. Government leaders should take part in, and encourage, a national conversation about the importance of civil society institutions and leaders in creating the social infrastructure needed for success.”
Rubio also called for shoring up entitlement programs, and distanced himself from Mitt Romney’s “47 percent comments.”
“Let’s protect our nation’s safety net programs,” Rubio said. “Not as a way of life, but as a way to help those who have failed to stand up and try again, and of course to help those who cannot help themselves. But these programs must be reformed to enhance family stability, financial opportunity, education and a culture of work.”
The conclusion of Rubio’s speech on policy ideas was a series of vignettes from Rubio’s personal history — the story of his Cuban immigrant parents who came to the United States and worked hard to give their children a more prosperous life than they had; Rubio’s admission that he only just finished paying off the student loans that paid for his law school education, using the earnings from his memoir; and an anecdote about bartenders at a “fancy New York Hotel” who gave him an honorary name tag after hearing the story of his father: “Rubio: Banquet Bartender.”
That story is a large part of why many Republicans peg Rubio as the “future” of the Republican Party, a standard bearer well-suited to the changing demographics and attitudes of the country. When he speaks of the American Dream, or the goals and needs of the middle class, he speaks from personal experience, lending a legitimacy to his comments that someone like Mitt Romney, who grew up wealthy and white, could never attain.
When he was given his honorary bartender name tag, Rubio said, it “reminded me that there are millions of Mario Rubio’s [Rubio’s father] all across America today. They aren’t looking for a handout. They just want a job that provides for their families. But there just aren’t enough jobs out there like that. And many of them do not have the skills they need for the jobs that are available.”
“All they want is a chance to earn a better life for themselves and a better future for their children. Whether they get that chance or not will determine whether America remains exceptional or declines,” he said.
Notably absent from the speech was any mention of immigration reform — an issue which Rubio staked his claim to in the days following the election, and one that his background would seem to make him uniquely suited to address.
Politico reported Tuesday morning that this speech was, in part, a moment for Rubio to flesh out his resume and prevent him from becoming pigeonholed as “the immigration candidate.”