Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Neither Marco Rubio's Career nor the Conservative Reform Project Is Over

In the wake of Marco Rubio’s withdrawal from the GOP presidential race, two myths have arisen. The first is that this is the necessary end of Senator Rubio’s political career. The second is that this is the end of optimism or hopes for conservative reform.

Regarding the first myth: Rubio is a relatively young man with considerable political talent. One setback does not end a career, and nearly every president in recent memory experienced some kind of major political defeat before eventually making it to the Oval Office. So there is every reason to believe that Senator Rubio has a bright future ahead.

If it’s premature to write political obituaries for Marco Rubio, it also jumps the gun to say that the failure of his candidacy spells the end of political reform for conservatives. One of the biggest reasons for Rubio’s defeat in this primary was his decision to champion the Gang of Eight bill in 2013. Contrary to media spin, the Gang of Eight was in many ways a backward-looking bill, one that enshrined long-standing and flawed Beltway policy imperatives. If Rubio had led the battle against the Gang of Eight (or would it have been the Gang of Seven?) in 2013, he would have been in a much stronger position to harness populist energies in 2016. Even after the Gang of Eight debacle, he still could have escaped the box-canyon on immigration by pivoting to specific, pro-worker reforms he would put in place for the immigration system. However, he didn’t and so was always on the defensive on immigration. Marco Rubio might have stumbled in this race not because he embraced policy reform but because he did not embrace reform enough.

There’s an even bigger reason why efforts at conservative reform might be even more important now. Whatever one thinks about Donald Trump’s character and policy positions, he has drawn attention to the fact that many at the core and on the fringes of the GOP coalition have policy priorities at odds with conventional Beltway orthodoxies.

On many of these issues, Republicans and conservatives can address these concerns without sacrificing essential principles. Efforts to improve health-care coverage, reform trade, defend national sovereignty, reinvigorate broad-based economic growth, and create a pro-integration immigration system could be part of that effort of reinvigorating the GOP coalition without surrendering principle. If the #NeverTrump movement is serious about creating an electable alternative, its proponents will need to think even harder about policy reform. The policy positions of 1980 should not be the eternal principles of 2016, and the window-dressing of noting economic concerns while offering policies that are more of the same will likely lead to more of the same electoral result--defeat.

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