September 3, 2012

What to make of a Republican Party that celebrates upward mobility but does nothing to promote it — despite the stunning fact that it is now less likely that an American child will rise from the station of his or her birth than children in most of Europe? Call it the Rubio Paradox — for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a sure contender for the national ticket someday after his performance last week in Tampa, and the most eloquent current exemplar of this American creed.

The striking thing about the Republican National Convention was how all of the most powerful speeches invoked tales of ascent from humble circumstance. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told of his parents growing up poor; his dad was the first in the family to graduate from college. The father of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee never got a high school degree, but he told young Mike that education and hard work were his tickets to a better life. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, another rising star, grew up on the border in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, before her folks started a security guard business that grew to employ 125 people in three states.

But no family’s American dream was as moving or well told as Rubio’s, whose parents went to Florida from Cuba penniless in the 1950s and worked tirelessly to give their children the chances they never had. Rubio said his dad always told him, “You can do anything in America.” The father bar-tended endless hours in the back of banquet halls, Rubio said, so that one day his son would be able to stand at the podium in the front of the room.

Anyone listening to Rubio’s moving tale surely thought, “Yes! This is exactly what America is about!” But the stories were all we got. No Republican speakers offered any policies to renew upward mobility in the United States. In fact, nowhere did the Republicans acknowledge that upward mobility is now greater in many other countries with feudal or aristocratic histories.

When Republicans mentioned their policy plans at all, it was mostly to peddle standard bromides of tax cuts and smaller government, as if these are the answer to everything. Their ideas for school choice and “opportunity scholarships” for children stuck in failing schools sound appealing, but only for the tiny fraction of students to which they apply. With no serious ideas to renew upward mobility, and a budget plan that perversely undermines it by slashing preschool and college aid for poor youths, the entire pitch, on closer examination, seemed a hollow exercise in nostalgia.

Unfortunately, the Democrats who kick off their convention in Charlotte Tuesday night, will do only marginally better. To be sure, Democrats will say their passion is to ensure that the circumstances of one’s birth do not determine one’s destiny. But given President Obama’s proposals, the outer limits of Democratic ambition are unequal to today’s challenges.

The president won’t insist on extending high-quality preschool to every poor child, for example, something nations with greater upward mobility routinely do. He won’t mention, much less propose to remedy, this country’s unique and shamefully unequal system of school finance, which dooms poor children to the least qualified teachers and shabbiest facilities in the country.

While the president will talk a good game when it comes to improving college affordability, nothing he proposes will alter the fact that a year’s tuition at public college now consumes a quarter of median family income, while at private colleges the figure has jumped beyond 50 percent. And even as the president takes credit for modest increases in the maximum value of Pell Grants available to help defray these costs, he won’t point out that in 1976 this maximum grant covered 72 percent of costs at a typical public college, while today it covers only half that much.

Simply put, the president’s current plan is to leave public colleges half as affordable via federal aid as they were under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

A real agenda to restore the American dream would entail much bolder steps in these areas. Republicans, afflicted by the Rubio Paradox, don’t want to spend the money. In their hearts, Democrats want to, but they can’t figure out how — especially when they’re afraid to call for broader taxes, deeper defense cuts or slower growth in health and pension programs for seniors that increasingly crowd out funding for the young and vulnerable.

For all the nostalgia and soaring aspirations, in other words, it turns out that this country isn’t serious about renewing upward mobility at all. Something will need to shake up the boundaries of debate before Marco Rubio’s pretty words last week or Barack Obama’s this Thursday can change the odds for millions of luckless Americans born into poverty and chaos.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a contributor to MSNBC. He serves on a commission empaneled by Education Secretary Arne Duncan that is looking at issues of school finance and other ways to boost educational equity and excellence. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.