2016 Alert: As Chris Christie struggles with bridges, Marco Rubio turns to poverty as an issue

Two interesting things as relate to the 2016 Republican side of the Presidential equation are in play right now. Today, Chris Christie will address this whole bridge-gate controversy. Meanwhile, yesterday — in the LBJ Room on Capitol Hill, 50 years after LBJ’s ‘War on Poverty’ was declared — Marco Rubio delivered an address about poverty and economic inequality. Rubio’s event was hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, and Arthur Brooks introduced him — that should give you some clues to the tone of the speech, but it was a tricky situation for Rubio. The far right of the party doesn’t think he’s conservative enough, so if he seemed to appeal too much to the poor, he could further alienate that section. If he went too far right, he would look unsympathetic. If he stayed near the center, he could still alienate the far right. The exact tonality necessary was basically a tight-rope act. Here’s a little bit of the speech from last night:

That’s the “thesis level,” if you will. If you want the entire speech, it’s here (with Arthur Brooks intro).

Poverty and economic inequality discussions, politically, have typically been a strong point for the Democratic side. If Rubio could emerge as a ‘thought leader’ on these issues, then he could help the Republicans move into the space of talking about these things — a more ‘pro-people’ approach — instead of just bashing the ObamaCare rollout, which will likely be the tenor of most hotly-contested 2014 races. If Republicans get more of a voice on inequality, we could see more bipartisan efforts in legislation over the next 18-24 months. This is all, obviously, a big “if.”

Rubio was on TV this morning and banged the drum of his bigger speech:

“The issue is not whether the cashier at Burger King makes less than the CEO,” he added. “The issue is whether that cashier gets stuck being a cashier for five, ten, 15, 20 years and can’t move up.”

The term he’s going to focus on moving forward is “opportunity inequality” instead of “economic inequality:”

“But if the president’s proposal for dealing with this problem is raising the minimum wage and taxing rich people? That’s a solution to what he called the defining issue of our time?” Rubio asked. “That’s not a solution. That’s the same tired, stale rhetoric and policies that have failed for 50 years.”

Here’s the clip from that interview — it starts about three minutes in.

I think the terminology is good — the issue is partially about opportunity, because opportunity is theoretically what America is rooted in — but when it slides into attacks of the other party, it seems less like something that’s going to lead to a solution. Tell me why your plan is good for helping people get on the right track; don’t tell me how tired the other guy’s plan is. Good football teams or soccer teams go out and just win; they show that their preparation and skill is better. They don’t spend the whole run-up to the game shit-talking. That only really happens in wrestling, and that’s, er, fake.

Here’s some more on Republican ideas on inequality, via The New York Times:

Republicans are introducing a series of proposals to help more Americans rise out of poverty: attaching or reinstating work requirements to safety-net programs, streamlining federal offices, improving training and education initiatives and offering tax breaks to the needy. Democrats are urging an extension of unemployment benefits and an increase in the federal minimum wage.

Rubio also talked about ‘flex funds’ being given to states so that they can creatively develop initiatives that will work for them. Rubio also talked about relocation as an option. Not all the reaction was positive:

But … some have viewed the speech positively — because while the ideas reflect some things that are already in place (for example, a lot of what he said reflects the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC), just the notion of a GOP thought leader giving a speech on poverty constitutes progress.

That said, on the whole issue of whether discussing poverty could push Rubio out in the cold with the far right, well … yes, that seems to be a concern. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation ripped his speech afterwards, saying in part:

“The idea that what you want to do is collect money at the federal government level and hand it out to states is the exact wrong way to produce conservative policies,” he said.

I think it’s sad that the real issue for most people is the political tonality of what’s being said, as opposed to the actual ideas being discussed. We do have poverty in this country, and we do have inequality — whether it’s an inequality of simple dollars or an inequality of opportunity is almost besides the central point; that’s semantics and linguistics, and what we need is to fix the issue. It’s going to be hard, because people who have money want to keep the money (see the Macy’s layoffs today as an example) and people who don’t have the money still want to have families, and the complicated cycle keeps turning. You’re never going to have everyone rich, but we can do something about opportunity, and we can do something about long-term unemployment — and it is refreshing to see a Republican at the forefront of those dialogues.

Ted Bauer