Marco Rubio picks up the pace

Last night he was speaking to the Jack Kemp Foundation. Today Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was at the Politico Playbook breakfast.

Sen. Marco Rubio at the Brookings Institute this spring (Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)

Asked about his number-one priority, he answered:

Well, I don’t think there is a number-one thing. I think there are a number of number-one things, and you’ve got to do them all.

Look, the biggest obstacle we face is that the 21st-century student doesn’t look like the 20th-century student. It’s not just an 18-year-old that graduated high school. Obviously, that still continues to be a significant part of the folks that are going into college. But it’s also the 38-year-old who has decided to go back to school and get a degree. That was my sister’s experience. It’s also the 25-year-old that, after 10 years of being out of high school, has been kind of stuck in these service-area jobs and is deciding they want to empower themselves with new skills. And the great news is that technological advances are going to not only lower the time and cost of getting that kind of skill acquisition, but are going to make it, you know, much more accessible. And what we have to make sure is that our student aid programs don’t stand in the way of it.

So let me just give you an example. Right now, what we have is student aid programs like the Pell Grants or the loan programs.  They accredit institutions. They don’t accredit courses. And so that obviously is weighed towards your traditional four-year, land grant university. … But what about the folks that don’t want to do that, that can’t do that? They want to take a course, an online course from this school here, and an online credit from this school over here. We should accredit courses so that we’re not discriminating against allowing people to acquire skills in that setting. I think we have to reform our Pell Grant and loan programs so that they reflect the 21st-century student. I think that’s a bipartisan thing.

The second thing I would do is make sure the students have more information. That’s why I sponsored the Right to Know Before You Go Act, which means that before you take out this loan, students are going to be given information about how long it’s going to take to graduate, how much you can expect to make if you graduate with this degree, and how much you’re going to have to owe on student loans. Now if you still want to get that philosophy major, that’s fine. But it doesn’t pay a lot of money, and you’re going to owe 150 grand.

Some would say taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing philosophy majors, but whatever the specifics, it is clear that Rubio is wading into policy in a way he hasn’t before. He speaks eloquently about conservative values but now it is moored to policy. (I think the challenge for the conservative movement, the challenge for every movement in American politics, is to apply your principles that, as a conservative, I believe are tested and proven by time and history. And applying those principles to the 21st century.”)

His chief of staff, Cesar Conda, e-mailed me to say this was not mere talk. “We will be introducing specific pieces of legislation he talked about in his
speech throughout the next Congress.”

Rubio is not part of a bipartisan group that has been working on immigration reform, the aide said. Conda also said that Rubio doesn’t have his own time frame on when he might come forward with an immigration bill and can’t say whether it would go beyond Dream Act types of provisions.

The challenge for Rubio will to be prioritize his proposals (now that he has lots of them). If education is his passion, then he should focus there, regardless of calls from some for him to take on immigration reform. Truth be told, the minority party in the Senate can’t get much done, but if he is persistent he may be able to claim some successes and reach across the aisle to Democrats.

It is interesting that Barack Obama went from the Senate, where he had no real accomplishments, to the White House in two years. He hardly had time to be asked what he was working on, let alone actually achieve anything. But frankly it wasn’t a barrier to office. That may not be a formula for success, however, particularly for Republicans who get far less in the way of a benefit of the doubt and need to show interest in subjects such as health care and education, rather than simply wax lyrically as Democrats do.

So in that regard Rubio is playing his hand well. Get serious. Get into policy. Make an impression with substance. Even if he doesn’t run in 2016, that is the only means by which a senator can have an impact, move the country and pull his party along (into the 21st century, in this case).

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