Monday, February 22, 2016

In Little Rock, Marco Rubio sells American exceptionalism

Posted By on Mon, Feb 22, 2016 at 6:28 AM

Marco Rubio rallied a crowd yesterday afternoon at the convention center in downtown Little Rock. The video above isn't of the best quality, but the audio is decent if you're curious to hear the Florida senator's speech.

It was well-crafted Republican boilerplate, for the most part. Hillary Clinton is unfit to be president because of Benghazi. The Iran nuclear deal is a betrayal. "We are going to repeal and replace Obamacare." Something about Common Core being a federal takeover of education. "When I’m president of the United States, if you’re on welfare you’re going to be either working or going to school so you can get a good job and never again rely on government."

At the centerpiece of Rubio's stump speech was a fervent exultation in American exceptionalism. From early in his address:

We are the greatest nation in the history of all mankind. Never be afraid to teach that to your children; we have to do more of that in this country, because people will not work hard or sacrifice on behalf of the ordinary. Our kids need to know the truth — that they were born citizens of the single greatest nation in the history of all of mankind. All of mankind. Do you realize that most of the people who have ever lived have lived in a country that said to them it didn’t matter how hard they worked? It didn’t matter how long they tried, it didn’t matter how good they were? Their future was going to depend on who their parents were.
But we have been blessed to live in the one place on Earth where that’s not the case — the one place on Earth where your future is up to you.

Never mind the fact that the U.S. lags most other developed countries in terms of social mobility. The interesting thing is just how much Rubio's message revolves around this theme. It was even his principle indictment of Barack Obama:

He wanted to change America to make it more like the rest of the world. He wanted us to become a country more like other countries, but what he didn’t realize was that America didn’t want to be another country. We want to be the United States of America.

This is Rubio's axiomatic answer to Donald Trump's insistence that he and he alone will Make America Great Again: America is the greatest, always has been.

It's city-on-a-hill stuff straight from the Reagan playbook, but I wonder how much resonance that message has in a foreign policy era in which the U.S. lacks a clear and present rival and threats seem increasingly chaotic and diffuse. Trump's muddled paranoia seems a better fit for the times, depressingly enough.

After listening to the stuff peddled by Trump and Ted Cruz, Rubio's calculated but familiar conservatism feels almost soothing: At least the man talks like a presidential candidate is expected to talk. He projects an air of starchy decency and canned inspiration; he doesn't swear! Yet Matthew Yglesias at Vox argued fairly convincingly on Saturday that Rubio may be a worse presidential prospect than Trump.

Yes, Trump is a raging bigot, or at least someone who's happy to indulge raging bigotry for his own ends — but consider that Rubio's response to Trump's Muslim-bashing has been somewhere between muted and sympathetic and that he's done a 180 on immigration reform of any kind, a disingenuous policy reversal based entirely on the prevailing political winds.Yglesisas writes:

Under pressure from Ted Cruz, Rubio is now promising to start deporting DREAMers as soon as he takes office. He's even turned a wink-nudge promise to bring back torture as an instrument of government policy into an applause line in debates and on the stump.

Nobody knows what lurks in Rubio's heart on these matters, of course. But one could say the same about Trump. What we do know for sure is that Rubio's strategy for beating back the most repugnant aspects of Trumpism is to imitate them.

On foreign policy, meanwhile, Rubio vows to nix the Iranian nuclear deal, escalate involvement in Syria and take a hard line against Russia in the Ukranian conflict. For all his plans to "knock the shit out of" ISIS,  Trump forwards no such neoconservative ambitions.

In contrast to Rubio, Trump is more prone to offering simply ignorant remarks but also has considerably more restrained instincts. Trump essentially takes the world-conquering nationalism of George W. Bush and turns it inward, offering suspicion of outsiders and a reluctance to launch new wars. This kind of quasi-isolationist thinking isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it certainly reduces the risk of utter catastrophe relative to a return to high Bushism.

In a poll earlier this month, Cruz led among Arkansas Republicans, at 27 percent. Rubio and Trump both came in at 23 percent. But a lot may have changed in the last few weeks.

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