Sen. Marco Rubio is filling in the blanks of 'Trumponomics'

Sen. Marco Rubio is filling in the blanks of 'Trumponomics'
© Greg Nash

During the 2016 GOP presidential primary, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTurkey says soldier killed despite cease-fire in Syria White House staggers after tumultuous 48 hours Erdoğan got the best of Trump, experts warn MORE (R-Fla.) attempted to give voters an optimistic vision for the country’s future. Much of his economic messaging sounded like repackaged Republican talking points, focusing largely on the idea of America being the land of opportunity. Rubio repeatedly relayed his personal story: He was the working-class son of a bartender and a maid, and he was able to realize the American dream. Now, he argued, we must protect that dream for all who seek to pursue it.

Rubio’s campaign slogan was “A New American Century.” One could argue it was, essentially, “Keep America Great.” And it didn’t quite resonate.

In the years leading up to his presidential campaign, Rubio’s economic messaging always focused almost exclusively on “economic mobility.” In 2014, he delivered an address at the American Enterprise Institute lamenting the outcomes of President Johnson’s failed “War on Poverty.” Rubio largely dismissed solutions that seek to address “income inequality” in the context of real family life:

“Yes, the cashier at a fast food chain makes significantly less than the company’s CEO. The problem we face is not simply the gap in pay between them, but rather that too many of those cashiers are stuck in the same job for years on end, unable to find one that pays better.

“And it is this lack of mobility, not just income inequality, that we should be focused on.”

While this is a laudable goal, it is not an achievable reality for a large swath of American families, many of whom are deep in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, and struggling even to imagine what income mobility would realistically look like for them. These families — many of whom President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE won over in the 2016 campaign — are looking for immediate relief.

Now, however, Rubio appears to have taken a step back and recognized the economic realities on the ground. In a recent interview with The Economist, Rubio takes a hard pivot:

“In offering himself as an optimistic Reaganite, Mr Rubio acknowledges that he missed the ‘anxiety and anger’ Mr Trump tapped into. ‘I spent a tremendous amount of time focused on the opportunities I had as the son of a bartender and a maid in the past century,’ he says. ‘I didn’t spend nearly enough time talking about what the bartender and the maid face today.’”

And Rubio goes even further:

“‘Government has an essential role to play in buffering this transition,’ he says. ‘If we basically say everyone is on their own and the market’s going to take care of it, we will rip the country apart, because millions of good hardworking people lack the means to adapt.’ Economic liberty, in this retelling, becomes something the government is required to guarantee. It is the freedom to enjoy ‘the dignity of work’, says Mr Rubio. ‘There needs to be a conservative movement that addresses these realities.’”

This is a complete shift for Rubio, as well as a rejection of the standard Republican orthodoxy on economics. It is instead an emphasis on the bread-and-butter needs of the American family.

We saw this evolution in Rubio’s thinking manifest itself during the tax cut debate. Prior to the GOP tax plan passing, Rubio threatened to withhold his vote unless Republican leadership added an increased child tax credit — raising it from $1,000 per child to $2,000 per child — and made that tax credit fully refundable. He didn’t get everything he wanted — the tax credit ended up being only 70 percent refundable up to $1,400 — but it was still a significant victory for the senator and for working class families.

In order to understand the allure of “Make America Great Again”, one must understand that, for many families, America is currently not doing so great. Rhetoric about opportunity and income mobility has little chance of exciting voters who feel utterly hopeless. It’s completely tone deaf to the current economic realities facing working class Americans.

Rubio now recognizes this, and in doing so, is starting to fill in the blanks of what Trumponomics could actually look like. He has the opportunity to play a similar role for President Trump on policy to what Jack Kemp played for Ronald Reagan.

In the past, Republican economic policy has been totally skewed toward benefiting corporations versus families. But giving large tax breaks directly to the American people, as Reagan did by cutting marginal rates, is a much more effective way to address the concerns and needs of the middle class. Corporate America is doing fine right now. Who needs the relief more? Who needs the hand up?

The Republican obsession with benefiting corporations makes no sense from a political standpoint either, at least not in 2018. Most corporations have firmly placed themselves on #TeamResist, fighting Trump on immigration, abortion, religious liberty, and even the Second Amendment. Why would Republicans reward them when providing more relief to working families would be much more beneficial and politically expedient, too?

The tax cut debate is over now, and we have the law we have. It was a good bill. It should do a lot for working class families, thanks largely to the efforts of Marco Rubio. But could it have been better? Absolutely.

Republicans still have much to learn from the success of Trump in 2016. It would behoove them and the American people if they followed Rubio’s example and shifted their focus away from corporations and “job-creators” and more toward families and the working class.

Frank Cannon is the president at American Principles Project. Follow him on Twitter @FrankCannonAPP.