Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute and arguably the godfather of reform conservatism, likes to say: “My movement shouldn’t be fighting against things. My movement should be fighting for people.” Rather than rail against government, against liberalism, against “the liberal welfare state,” Republicans need to remember that people want politicians to fight for people like them. Brooks wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
Some say the solution for conservatives is either to redouble the attacks on big government per se, or give up and try to build a better welfare state. Neither path is correct. Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.
Whether consciously or not, that is what Rubio is doing. His announcement speech was devoid of attacks on “the establishment.” He was not arguing against things; he was arguing for people:
My father was grateful for the work he had, but that was not the life he wanted for his children. He wanted all the dreams he once had for himself to come true for us. He wanted all the doors that closed for him to be open for me.My father stood behind a small portable bar in the back of a room for all those years, so that tonight I could stand behind this podium in the front of this room.That journey, from behind that bar to behind this podium, is the essence of the American Dream.Whether or not we remain a special country will depend on whether that journey is still possible for those trying to make it now:The single mother who works long hours for little pay so her children don’t have to struggle the way she has…The student who takes two buses before dawn to attend a better school halfway across town…The workers in our hotel kitchens, the landscaping crews in our neighborhoods, the late-night janitorial staff that clean our offices … and the bartenders who tonight are standing in the back of a room somewhere… I have chosen this course because this election is about them. Theirs is the most important generation in American history. If we can capture the promise of this new century they will be the freest and most prosperous Americans ever. But if we fail, they will be the first generation of Americans to inherit a country worse off than the one left for their parents.
That is arguing for people. And it turns out it is inspiring and timely. For all the talk about anger and mistrust of government, voters don’t want to believe evil forces (government, congressional leaders, Big Business, immigrants) are out to get them. It’s scary and it’s exhausting being against all that, and it leaves one empty and depressed. Rubio’s message of optimism, success, opportunity and dignity is timely and a change from vague appeals to entrepreneurism and sterile lessons in market economics and the Founders. (“My father became a bartender. My mother a cashier, a maid and a Kmart stock clerk. They never made it big. But they were successful. Two immigrants with little money or education found stable jobs, owned a home, retired with security and gave all four of their children a life far better than their own.”)
You would think all politicians would get this, but Rubio is unique in the field so far. It does not mean other candidates don’t want to help people, but it does mean they are framing their arguments in negative terms, in appeals to authority, to abstractions and to opposition to liberalism. Jeb Bush correctly analyzes our challenges and promises the “right to rise,” but we don’t hear so much about the people who are rising. When he talks about immigration promoting “growth” (a thing) he does not tell us the benefits to people (the other employees who get hired, the people whose lives are saved by medical advances created by immigrants, etc.). Everyone on the right knows Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker beat the teachers union and is against “top-down” government; they need to hear about the students’ lives who were changed by better schools, the small businessmen who prospered because of tax cuts, etc. And, goodness, from Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) we get a dystopian nightmare (the government is listening to your calls, getting ready to grab your guns, etc.) and invective against the president, other Republicans, liberalism, the Internal Revenue Service, etc. Venting is cathartic but leaves you deflated, tired. It is the lingo and attitude of a minority party playing defense.
Rubio’s policies are no less conservative and in some cases more so than other Republicans, but he grounds them in moral terms. We owe it to the next generation. We need to help those seeking the American dream. It is not the language of liberalism, which says the government will tend to your every need, nor is it the sound of libertarianism indifferent to the outcomes of the free market. In Arthur Brooks’s terms, it is the language of “earned success” — a call for all Americans to create their own version of the American dream.
There may be other explanations for Rubio’s success. But it may be that Brooks has it right. Running for people, not against things, is a winning message, and appealing to the foundational values of America — everyone has the chance to be a success as he or she defines it — taps into something conservatives, and maybe all Americans, want to hear.