Marco Rubio and the Coming Conservative Revolt

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the immediate wake of the election, Republicans felt so stunned — in no small part because they had deluded themselves into expecting victory — that it seemed momentarily possible that the party’s long march to the right may halt or even reverse. But the future of the party is already taking shape, and that future will be, in some form or fashion, a conservative reaction against the Republican leadership that has sold them out. The smarter Republicans have already shaken off the trauma of electoral defeat and begun positioning themselves to capitalize.

One important indication comes from National Review Washington editor Robert Costa, who writes today about Tom Price. You may not have heard of Price, but the conservative House member is conferring with Grover Norquist and right-wing members of the House, and setting himself up to challenge John Boehner in the event of a budget deal. Boehner earlier this year offered Price a leadership position on the condition that he offer full support to Boehner, a condition Price tellingly rejected. Costa quotes a Price ally, who hilariously tells him Price “is hoping for the best, hoping taxes don’t go up with any fiscal-cliff deal.” This is hilarious because this is tantamount to saying Price is hopeful the sun won’t rise tomorrow morning, but if it does, he may have to challenge Boehner.

But the truest indicator of the future of the party is Marco Rubio. The most unabashed of the 2016 candidates, Rubio is extremely skilled at discerning what his party wants and positioning himself as the man to give it to them. Last week, Rubio spoke at a party event in New York Washington, a speech that prompted New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat, whose defining trait is to always see a Republican moderate around the corner that never arrives, confidently predicted a Republican moderation yet again. Each cited Rubio’s speech, a paean to the party’s future as the shining beacon of hope for Latinos, the poor, and other problematic constituencies.

As always, there were caveats. Both columnists noted in passing that the great new moderation they foresaw was as yet entirely confined to rhetoric. (Douthat: “The speech didn’t offer the kinds of policy breakthroughs the party ultimately requires.” Brooks: “Some of the policies he mentioned were pretty conventional.”)

Well, yes, the fact that Rubio was merely wrapping party dogma in pleasant-sounding rhetoric is a wee problem in the analysis. And over the last few days, Rubio’s approach has grown more clear. On the budget, Rubio delivered the Republican weekly radio address, and his message was more of the old-timey religion: We must get the national debt under control. Tax increases will not solve our $16 trillion debt. Only economic growth and a reform of entitlement programs will help control the debt.

This is the classic Republican metaphysical dodge, which not only argues for keeping taxes as low as possible but refuses to acknowledge that revenue bears any relationship at all to deficits. Deficits equal spending! Two legs bad, Reagan good!

On immigration, meanwhile, Rubio is carefully positioning himself to oppose any potential deal. He is not coming out and immediately throwing his body in front of the legislative train. Rather, he pleads that we must not try to do everything at once and should instead try to reform immigration “step by step.” Of course, “step by step” is exactly the catchphrase Republicans used to oppose health-care reform. It’s a way of associating yourself with the broadly popular goal of reform while giving yourself cover to oppose any particular bill that has a chance to pass. You’re not against reform, you’re against this reform. It’s too much, too fast.

It’s not coincidental that Rubio is speaking out on these two issues. They’re the two most plausible issue areas where President Obama is likely to sign major bills — and, as a result, the two areas where conservatives are nearly certain to conclude that their party’s leadership betrayed them. The anger of the base may or may not be strong enough to prevent Republicans in Congress from striking a deal. But it will surely be strong enough to shape the party’s internal decisions — no Republican who acquiesces on the budget or immigration will be eligible to lead the party in the future. Price and Rubio see that already, and others will surely follow.