Fox News earlier this month named Florida Senator Marco Rubio an “ardent supporter” of “populist politics.” The American Prospect identified him last month as a leading proponent of so-called Republican Economic Populism. AJ Kaufman wrote in the Sun Sentinel in South Florida last year, claiming Rubio has been “a fiscal populist for some time.”
But what exactly does that mean?
If “populism” refers to a rhetorical style rather than a political platform, Rubio is considered a populist. He often claims to represent the aspirations of the great mass of common people who are misunderstood or despised by the elite. But Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan liked to talk like that too. So did accomplished Democratic centrists Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who called their 1992 campaign book Putting People First. If that is “populism” then almost everyone is a populist.
On the right, the claim of waging a culture war on behalf of Central America against the “Hollywood elites” (in the parlance of the moral majority of the 1980s) or “awakened” elites (in today’s parlance) is about as brave and original as claimed, To worship America and love Jesus. But remember, Rubio is supposed to be not only a cultural but also a “fiscal” or “economic” populist.
And that’s nonsense. Rubio does not want to increase the minimum wage. He opposes laws that make it easier for workers to organize unions and even uses the culture war rhetoric, sometimes hailed as “populist”, to advance his point of view. “Too often,” he writes, “in practice the right to form a union was a prerequisite for entrepreneurs to allow left-wing social organizers to take over their jobs.”
He has been flat out saying that he would never support Medicare for All. In fact, his views on health care are far less “populist” than those of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Hillary Clinton. The Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) modest restrictions on the exploitative practices of health insurers were too much for Rubio, who was willing to repeal the ACA and replace it with nothing.
Rubio’s pattern of opposing any legislation that would help ordinary people at the expense of economic elites also applies to higher education. In a 2019 comment in the Tampa Bay Times, he wrote that his “colleagues on the left” were calling for “free college and full credit.” Three guesses as to what he thought about it.
So what is the politician Donald Trump memorably toasted as “Little Marco” ready to do to help people drowning in their student loan debt?
Remember the thought. If you remember running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, when Elizabeth Warren came up with a plan to cancel massive amounts of student debt, Bernie Sanders went further, advocating universal student debt relief for the obvious reason that education is a public good should be and not a commodity first, and Kamala Harris wanted to cut up to $ 20,000 in student loan debt … but only for Pell Scholars starting successful businesses in disadvantaged communities?
I’m really looking forward to the 3 people who will qualify for it. https://t.co/1vm9jB0mJf
– Dr. Victoria Dooley (@DrDooleyMD) September 27, 2020
and you can apply in person on the third Monday of the month if you stand on one leg as you recite the lines from the 2000 Britney Spears hit “Lucky”. the line is outside so dress for bad weather https://t.co/GNqJjfH8En
– Peter Coffin (@petercoffin) August 12, 2020
Kamala, if all 0 Pell recipients that match this description show up for loan approval https://t.co/L6pKUb62gg pic.twitter.com/skj25zNcpD
– Brandon Barker ✨ (@AstroBarker) July 29, 2019
This has been widely and rightly ridiculed as the reductio ad absurdum of a bland business-friendly centrism.
Well, Marco Rubio has managed to improve Kamala one more time. Revived an idea he first came up with after the horrific filming at Pulse Night Club in 2016, Rubio has just passed a law to … wait for … suspend student loan payments for terrorist survivors for a year.
Rubio has managed to find a group smaller than the Pell Grant recipients who start successful businesses in disadvantaged communities. And he will not cancel their debts. He’s going to put it on hold for a year. That’s as good as it gets.
“Republican business populism” may describe the preferences of a certain subset of voters, but as a description of the political preferences of Rubio or any other great Republican politician, it’s a sick joke.