BY DAVID BROOKS
So after all the meshugas on the right over the past few years, the Republicans could wind up with two new leaders going into this election, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan. That’s a pretty excellent outcome for a party that has shown an amazing tendency to inflict self-harm.
Ryan is the new House speaker and right now Rubio is the most likely presidential nominee. The shape of the presidential campaign is coming into focus. It’s still wise to expect (pray) that the celebrity candidates will fade as the shopping phase ends and the buying phase begins.
Voters don’t have to know the details of their nominee’s agenda, but they have to know that the candidate is capable of having an agenda. Donald Trump and Ben Carson go invisible when the subject of actual governance comes up.
Jeb Bush’s problems are temperamental and thus most likely permanent. He would probably be a very effective president. And he would have been a very effective candidate — but in 1956. These are harsher times.
Ted Cruz looks likely to emerge as the candidate of the disaffected white working class — the non college-educated voters who are now registering their alienation and distrust with Trump. But there aren’t enough of those voters in the primary electorate to beat Rubio, and Cruz just isn’t likable enough to build a national campaign around. Rubio, meanwhile, has no natural enemies anywhere in the party, he has truly impressive natural skills and his greatest weakness is his greatest strength: his youth.
While other candidates are repeating the formulas of the 1980s and 1990s, Rubio is a child of this century. He understands that it’s no longer enough to cut taxes and say bad things about government to produce widespread prosperity. In a series of major policy speeches over the past two years (he’s one of the few candidates who actually gives them), Rubio has emphasized that new structural problems threaten the American dream: technology displacing workers, globalization suppressing wages and the decline of marriage widening inequality.
His proposals reflect this awareness. At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities. Rubio talks specifically about targeting policies to boost middle- and lower-middle-class living standards.
For example, Rubio’s tax policy starts where all Republican plans start. He would simplify the tax code, reduce rates and move us toward a consumption-based system by reducing taxes on investment.
But he understands that overall growth no longer translates directly to better wages. He adds a big $2,500 child tax credit that is controversial among conservative economists, but that would make life easier for working families.
His anti-poverty programs are the biggest departure from traditional Republicanism. America already spends a fair bit of money aiding the poor — enough to lift most families out of poverty if we simply wrote them checks. But the money flows through a hodgepodge of programs and creates perverse incentives. People are often better off overall if they rely on government rather than getting an entry-level job.
As Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute has pointed out, there are two million fewer Americans working today than before the recession and two million more receiving disabilities benefits.
Influenced by Cass’ work, Rubio has tried to offer people who aren’t working some basic security, while also championing wage subsidies that would encourage people to get entry-level jobs. The idea is to reward people who get on the ladder of opportunity, and to compensate for the decline in low-skill wages.
Rubio would reform the earned-income tax credit and extend it to cover childless workers. He would also convert most federal welfare spending into a “flex fund” that would go straight to the states. The state agencies that implement welfare policies would have more freedom to design them. He’d maintain overall welfare spending, adjusting it for inflation and poverty levels, but he’d allow more room for experimentation.
Republican debates rarely touch on education for some reason, but Rubio also has a slew of ideas to reform it. He says the higher education system is controlled by a cartel of well-established institutions that block low-cost competitors from entering the market. He wants student loan costs to be based on an affordable percentage of a person’s income.
Of all the candidates, Rubio has done the most to harvest the work of Reform Conservatism, which has been sweeping through the think tank world. In a year in which many candidates are all marketing, Rubio is a balance of marketing and product.
If Ryan and Rubio do emerge as the party’s two leaders, it will be the wonkiest leadership team in our lifetime. That’s a good thing.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.