David Frum

02.13.13

Rubio: New Tone, Familiar Ideas

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images ()

Marco Rubio last night did a superb job of road-testing the new GOP rebranding. Now we'll have a fair chance to see if rebranding will suffice - or if something more is needed.

Rebranding begins with the assumption that there is nothing wrong with the GOP's core message. All that needs to change is (1) the party's stance on immigration and (2) the party's tone. Junk the Ayn Rand rhetoric about moochers and takers and spare a compassionate word for the unemployed. Then find a candidate with an appealing life story - particularly one who can speak Spanish - and it's onward to victory.

Through all the span of this Great Recession, I've argued against "rebranding" in favor of rethinking. I've argued that the GOP's core message is decreasingly relevant, both as a matter of politics and as a matter of good public policy.

Still, I welcome "rebranding" as at least a step in the right direction, a sign that the party's intellectual ice is cracking. No question too that Marco Rubio puts a more appealing face on the party than we've seen in some long time.

But here's where, from my point of view, the Rubio reply fell short.

* He's still talking about fixing the economy by fixing the deficit, rather than the other way around: fix the deficit by fixing the economy.

* He's still using "growth" as code for tax cuts aimed at upper-income groups, rather than as a broader agenda that does include tax reform, but that also includes measures to relieve household debt and vigorously expansionary monetary policy.

* He's still signed up for the program of cutting social benefits right away and postponing Medicare reforms to later. It seems to me that here again the priority should be reversed. The sooner we restrain the growth of healthcare costs, the better. But cutting unemployment insurance and food stamps while more than 12 million remain unemployed is a formula both for unnecessary personal hardship and for fiscal drag that will slow recovery.

Thus far, Rubio-ism is merely Ryanism with a human face. If Rubio is to be the party's "savior," as promised by TIME magazine, he needs to develop a new message to accompany his new tone.