Marco Rubio's authentic conservatism

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All very typical and expected themes and contrasts. At the same time, the speech had a decidedly sharper target than we’ve seen by the Republican Party in the past. Rubio uttered the phrase “working class” or “middle class” seventeen times in a speech that ran less than fifteen minutes. In every way imaginable, Rubio sought to drill down on one indelible point. Obama would have you believe that an activist federal government fosters expansion of the middle class. But as Rubio put it, “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead, it’s going to hold you back.”

To be sure, this was not a speech about the makers and the takers, the 47%, self-deportation, or class warfare. In fact, the only reference to the rich was when Rubio concluded: “So Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”

Imagine Mitt Romney or John McCain uttering that line. They would first have to decide which neighbors of the 14 homes they own between the two of them they were talking about.

It is here that Rubio offered what may be a new emerging branding of the Republican Party. I’ll call it "Authentic Conservatism".

In the 1950s, William F. Buckley set out to show that conservatives had brains – something that Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal have revived recently. Jindal doesn’t want his to be the “stupid party,” certainly a dig at the anti-intellectualism fostered by the likes of Sarah Palin and her supporters.

In the 1960s, Barry Goldwater set out to show that conservatives had a conscience. Perhaps they needed ideas and ideology, but what mattered more to Goldwater was an inner integrity that, as he put it sees “the whole man.”

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon, drawing on past experience with Dwight Eisenhower, set out to prove that conservatives had a heart – an idea most certainly revived by George W. Bush in the late 1990s with his emphasis on “compassionate conservatism.”

Then came Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan is seen by conservatives as a transformative figure because, for them, he embodied all of these strands of conservatism. By standing his ground, Reagan showed he had integrity. With the humility in his smile, the shake of his head, and a joke on his lips, Uncle Ronnie showed he had heart. And despite attempts by the left to paint him as the know-nothing former actor, the Gipper had intellect.

What Rubio offered the Republican Party in his SOTU rebuttal was not any or all of these things, but something different: the son of two working class Latino immigrants who lives in the same neighborhood he grew up in, who inherited nothing but the opportunity his parents and America afforded him, and who can potentially connect voters through that biography to a Republican message that has been seen as overly harsh, out of touch, and outdated.

In a word, he has offered conservatism a lifeline through authenticity.

It is the closest the Republican Party has come to an identity politics which has been both the strength and the weakness of the Democratic Party since the 1960s.

The need for authentic conservatism is clear. When asked which candidate cares about people like me, 81% chose Barack Obama in the 2012 election. Rubio’s emergence reflects that disparity. Yes, he may help with the Republicans’ Latino problem – that is a big maybe. But his identity politics goes even further. He is one of us. He is real. This is something Republicans have not had in a leader of color ever.

We should be clear: this is not a policy makeover. Authentic conservatism involves nothing more than a retooling of the message delivered by the authentic messenger. It remains to be seen if Authentic Conservatism can bridge the wide demographic divide Republicans face in the years ahead.

Malone is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Pace University in New York City.