Commentary: With focus on the future, Rubio continues move toward populism

Populists often help their people first, and rather than becoming a bottom-up phenomenon, the ideology is shaped by bombast from the top.

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at a luncheon in Phoenix, Arizona in May 2015. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Commenting on the Democrats’ ongoing infrastructure legislation, Sen. Marco Rubio recently declared, “The $3.5 trillion plan isn’t socialism, it’s Marxism.”

While the profligate bill absolutely has aspects of socialism in it, the Floridian and other politicians should be careful about describing anything they disagree with as “Marxism,” because free stuff is quite popular.

Call three months of paid parental leave Marxism, and many people will begin to love the term, including some Republicans, since budget hawks have quickly disappeared.

Rubio knows better, too, since he’s one of the best critics of the “Marxist Cuban regime,” as he deems the Havana cabal.

Can President Joe Biden’s entitlements and giveaways be “Marxism,” akin to a rogue dictatorship? Realizing that liberals naively think Cuba is a sophisticated regime that “takes care of its people,” be careful. That is an absurd view, but Rubio still should avoid blurring the distinction between an actual Marxist regime and bloated welfare spending in the U.S.

Better to make the salient argument against the dangerous left-wing ideologies than simply toss out a word.

Rubio made many cogent points last month in First Things, writing 1,200 strong words in the journal about the dignity of work and expanding the child tax credit four years ago.

“The debate at the time was primarily about whether working parents deserved generous tax cuts or whether corporations did,” the two-term senator opined. “Many of my Republican colleagues argued that corporations would pass along the benefits of tax cuts to employees in the form of higher wages. We need to support working moms and dads trying to raise kids now.”

After doubling the child tax credit, data confirmed the law put millions into the pockets of working American families.

I voted for Rubio in the 2016 primaries. My wife and I canvassed for him and attended the senator’s rallies in three states. I thought he’d be a strong nominee and good president, because he’s conservative, young, from a crucial state, and well-informed on key issues.

Assuming he wins reelection to the U.S. Senate next fall, Rubio will likely run for president again in 2024. Now, however, he’s rebranding and becoming more populist.

Whether Huey Long or Bernie Sanders, I’ve explained before why I am not a fan, mostly because it’s frequently destabilizing, emotional and tribalistic, while lacking a coherent strategy.

And while populism can be good — the American Revolution, the civil rights movement, and tax revolts — populists often help their people first, and rather than becoming a bottom-up phenomenon,  the ideology is shaped by bombast from the top.

I prefer a populism that emphasizes fiscal restraint, like President Ronald Reagan’s, which warned of concentrated governmental power.

Rubio seeks a “common good” conservatism. Perhaps this is a nice balance, or perhaps it’s a place whereupon the new Right offloads limited government principles when politically convenient.

Considering his family’s blue-collar background, it’s appropriate the senator seeks a working-class party when the opposing party caters to Silicon Valley and academic elites.

Rubio once said the Biden Cabinet was full of Ivy Leaguers who will be “polite and orderly caretakers of America’s decline.” That’s a good line.

The American of Cuban heritage attended an unknown college in rural Missouri, then a community college, and the University of Florida. He paid his own way. So unlike the left or Republican Sens. Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley, his critiques of the elites are consistent with his life experience.

Rubio’s new populist pitch is not as Reaganesque as I like, but it could work — if it doesn’t focus on grievance and envy, and instead supports liberty and limited government.

It also must avoid any authoritarian style. Taking on social media is one thing, but conservatives don’t “seize the assets” of private institutions simply because we do not like them. Steer clear of that.