The political commentariat is now busily pondering the results of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Part of the emerging narrative, even before the people in that small state went to the polls, revolved around the question of whether the Republicans can find a candidate who is acceptable to the party’s establishment. Will someone emerge and become the rallying point for those who fear the damage that the widely reviled Ted Cruz or the puzzling Donald Trump could wreak on the party’s chances at all levels of the ballot in November?
Just a few months ago, conservative pundits and operatives were spreading conspiracy theories about Trump, claiming that the Democrats were secretly encouraging Trump’s candidacy as a way to destroy the Republican Party. Trump, whose checkered political history certainly raises questions about his sincerity or commitment to anything but his own ego, was supposedly a friendly stalking horse for his now-former friends, Bill and Hillary Clinton. By making the Republicans look crazy, the conservatives’ theory went, Trump could hand the White House to Hillary Clinton.
Whether or not that theory ever made sense (and it was never really more than a paranoid fantasy on the fringes of the right), in the current context this idea is rather ironic, because Trump more than anyone else (even more than Cruz) is providing cover for the other extreme ideologues on the Republican ballot. With Trump and Cruz in the picture, anyone backing another Republican candidate can honestly say, “Well, my guy isn’t that crazy!” Looking moderate next to Trump or Cruz is like looking fat next to a supermodel.
This is especially important in light of the clear belief among the political press that Americans love moderate politicians. In addition, those same political writers are deeply committed to the idea that both political parties include a sensible set of moderates along with a supposedly unreasonable and distressingly influential set of extremists.
Only someone committed to the latter part of that narrative could possibly liken, for example, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders’s actual policy views are well within the mainstream of recent American history and are widely popular among many people who call themselves moderates. Compare anything Sanders says to Trump’s call to commit human rights violations in fighting terrorism (for example, Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement of torture) or to deport millions of people while excluding all Muslims from entering the country, and the difference between Trump’s extremism and Sanders’s non-extremism could not be more stark. Sanders would make large changes in some areas, but nothing that he has proposed is outside of the experience of the U.S. in the post-WWII era.
In the midst of the search for reasonable moderates on the Republican side, however, people are failing to notice the extremism among the not-Trump-or-Cruz presidential candidates. In this column, I will begin what I expect to be a multi-part series in which I look at those other candidates to determine whether they can claim to call themselves moderates in any meaningful sense. Spoiler alert: None of them is moderate, or even close. Today, we begin with Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Faking Moderation Is Apparently Easy
Before diving into the details of Rubio’s policy views, we must first ask what it would even mean to call anyone’s views moderate. The fundamental difficulty in assessing a candidate’s possible moderation is that the word itself is so vague. I cannot pretend to provide a definition here that applies to all situations at all times, but at least one would expect moderate policy positions to be marked by two key features: (1) being somewhere near the middle of the current spectrum of thought, and (2) being relatively inoffensive to voters who think of themselves as non-ideological.
Note that a politician who is immoderate in this sense can still be quite appealing to a party’s elite. That is why it is encouraging to see that some news outlets have started to refer to the non-Trump-or-Cruz candidates as simply “establishment” candidates. This is even better than “mainstream,” which suggests some level of inoffensiveness on substance, but certainly there is no reason that we should expect the Republican elites’ selection processes to converge on a moderate candidate.
In fact, given that the Republican establishment—currently best personified by the extreme ideologue Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House—is anything but moderate, being the darling of that establishment tells us nothing about a candidate’s moderation. Instead, we would expect the establishment’s endorsement to connote moderation only if the establishment had concluded that it is required for strategic reasons to run a moderate candidate, even though their first choice would be to nominate a “true believer.” Luckily for such conservatives, and unfortunately for everyone else, only true believers are currently on offer in the Republican primaries.
Even so, the tendency to slip from “establishment” to “mainstream” to “moderate” is quite pronounced in American political discussions. For people like me, who actually care about what the candidates say with regard to the policies they espouse as opposed to how they present themselves on the campaign trail, such slippage can be quite frustrating.
Furthermore, the notion of moderation can often be confused with simply being soft-spoken—a trait all the more notable in a world that includes the Trump candidacy. Senator Rubio has reportedly adopted “a strategy of being likable and inoffensive to every group of Republicans, from the moderate mainstream to the most right-wing conservatives.” But quiet ideologues are still ideologues, and smiling extremists are still extremists. Looking past the hype, what do we know about Senator Rubio?
Rubio on the Issues: Extremely Conservative, and Even More Extremely Conservative
In some ways, it is truly astonishing that Marco Rubio ever has been described as anything other than extreme. His entire career in politics—which is to say, his entire life—has been built around an embrace of the post-Reagan extremism that enveloped his party during his adult lifetime. On the merits, one would not think of Rubio as any more of a moderate than openly extreme Republicans like Newt Gingrich.
The most obvious issue on which Rubio’s views are anything but moderate is reproductive rights. What counts as “moderate” when it comes to abortion today? The public broadly supports a woman’s right to choose, with the middle ground involving disagreements over various restrictions on access to abortions. Bans on so-called partial birth abortions, waiting periods, spousal notifications, and so on are plausibly in play among people who want to call themselves moderate on abortion.
Certainly, those in the broad middle ground on abortion have long agreed that women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest should be allowed to have abortions. On that question, Rubio is not only not a moderate, he is an extremist’s extremist. He loudly and proudly proclaims his belief that almost all abortions should be banned. On the campaign trail, Rubio does say that he would allow abortions to save a woman’s life, but he sticks to his very immoderate view that women who become pregnant due to rape or incest must not be allowed to terminate their pregnancies.
Note that being immoderate does not mean taking a logically indefensible position. One can understand the thought process that would lead to Rubio’s views on abortion, yet still conclude that those views are immoderate. And I am certainly not saying that my own views are moderate on this issue. I also reject what I am describing as the moderate position on abortion, in favor of a more complete version of “choice” than is currently available to women in this country. The point is, however, that I would not describe my view as moderate. Reasonable? Yes. Defensible? Absolutely. But not moderate, by current standards. As vague as that word is, being moderate has to mean something. And Rubio’s views on abortion are almost as extreme as one could imagine.
On other social issues, Rubio’s views are also quite outside of the moderate range. Rubio has said that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that recognized the constitutional requirement of marriage equality, even though the country’s moderates (and even a lot of its conservatives) have completely moved on from that culture war issue. Similarly, Rubio’s views on guns are as extreme as one can find in American politics. He even made a point of buying guns on Christmas Eve 2015, and he attacks even the most minimal proposals to regulate gun ownership as if they would end the world as we know it. Again, these views are not unheard of in American political conversations, but they are not moderate.
Rubio’s one claim to moderation, of course, was his participation several years ago in developing a plan (an extremely ungenerous plan, by the way) to deal with illegal immigration. He has since repudiated those views, however.
On the economy, it should be no surprise that Rubio holds extreme views. He was, after all, elevated to the U.S. Senate as a Tea Party-backed candidate who had embraced an extremely regressive agenda. Even in that context, however, Rubio’s tax plan as a presidential candidate is beyond the pale. As a business reporter for The New York Times recently noted, Rubio’s call to completely eliminate two types of taxes that almost exclusively fall on the rich—capital gains taxes and taxes on dividends and interest income—“breaks with past establishment Republican candidates for president in its extreme generosity to taxpayers who derive their income from investments rather than work.”
Similarly, Rubio’s relatively vague policy views on the federal budget include anything-but-moderate cuts in non-defense spending. He also falsely claims that Medicare and Social Security are “headed for bankruptcy,” and he has endorsed plans to change those programs in ways that moderate voters (who actually favor increasing Social Security and Medicare benefits) would reject. And he would, of course, repeal the Affordable Care Act.
In a column like this one, it is not possible to go through all of the issues on which candidates must take positions, but even this short foray at least makes it clear that Rubio’s policy views should make him the darling of committed conservatives, not moderates.
Of course, recent developments suggest that Rubio’s moment might have passed. His now-infamous “Rubiobot glitch” in last weekend’s presidential debate seems to have reversed his rise to the top of the list of establishment candidates who might take on Trump and Cruz, leading to a fifth-place finish behind even the severely charisma-free Jeb Bush. In the end, Rubio might be no one’s darling.
Or maybe he will survive that extremely damaging turn of events. If Rubio does end up being the Republican nominee, however, one can count on his campaign trying to convince the world that he is a moderate. The only ways to do that will be either to lie about his actual views, to announce that he has conveniently changed those views, or to obfuscate his views. I would bet on obfuscation.
If, on the other hand, the sudden realization that Rubio is an empty suit does bring down his candidacy, it will not be because anyone has actually noticed that he is a hard-right candidate who simply smiles and counts on his youthful appearance to convince people that he is not an extremist. It will be because he is not as good at pretending to be moderate as he needs to be. It will not, in other words, be substance but form that ends his campaign.
Given that Rubio’s views are not only immoderate but downright scary, however, maybe one should not look a gift horse in the mouth. If Rubio goes away, whatever the reason, it will be good for the country. If only there were someone among his competitors who was not similarly scary. That discussion, however, will have to await future columns here on Verdict.