Senator Marco Rubio, the most talented speaker in American politics today, kept pretty quiet for his first six months in office. It wasn't until June 14 that he delivered his first speech on the Senate floor. But when he finally had something to say, he didn't fail to impress. He delivered another powerful performance in the debt ceiling debate over the weekend during a colloquy with Senator John Kerry. And yesterday he took to the Senate floor and gave a quite interesting 10-minute speech on the two competing economic visions that divide us.
Rather than blaming politicians in Washington for the division (as politicians in Washington are wont to do), he said the problem runs much deeper. "Washington is divided because America is divided on this point," Rubio said. He was civil and fair-minded toward his opponents. But he didn't promise to bring us all together with a "balanced approach" or by being a "uniter, not a divider." He didn't promise to turn our blue states and red states into one nation of purply goodness. He argued we may not find compromise between the two visions. We may have to choose one or the other.
Rubio began by paying tribute to our republic and one of its founding documents (a key to his, and any politician's, rhetorical success). Then he pivoted to the current debate.
"We borrow $120 billion a month to pay our $300 billion-a-month bill," Rubio said. "And that's just too much money. That's too much money for Republicans; it's too much money for Democrats. It's just too much money."
While no one in either party would dispute that we have a problem, Rubio said, "The debate is how do we solve it, how do we generate more money for government and reduce the spending, at the same time?"
The debate, Rubio continued, is between those who believe the government's job is to promote "economic justice" and those who believe the government's job is to promote "economic opportunity."
"One is not more moral than the other," Rubio said of the competing views. "They are two very different visions of the role of government in America. But it lies at the heart of the debate that we're having as a nation."
Those who believe more in "economic justice" think "there are some in America that make too much money and should pay more in their taxes. They believe that our government programs can stimulate economic growth. And they believe that perhaps America no longer needs to fund or can no longer afford to fund our national defense and our military at certain levels."
Those who believe more in "economic opportunity" think "our revenues should come not from more taxes but from more taxpayers. That what we need are more people being employed, more businesses being created. They'll pursue tax reform, they'll pursue regulatory reform, but ultimately we look for more revenue for government from economic growth, not from growth in taxes."
What's the solution to this conflict? "Ultimately, we may find that between these two points there may not be a middle ground," said Rubio. "And that, in fact, as a nation and as a people, we must decide what we want the role of government to be in America, moving forward."
That's a pretty striking contrast with President Obama's rhetoric. For Obama, it's a "false choice" to give preference to one value at the expense of another. And Obama's beliefs are never in conflict with morally equal beliefs. During his 2008 campaign, Obama pitted the politics of hope against the politics of fear. (He's on Team Hope, in case you forgot.) In the current debate, Obama set up his "balanced approach" against the extreme approach of his opponents--an approach that is "not right" and "not fair," as he said during his nationally televised debt speech last week.
As Rubio tells it, one economic approach is "not more moral than the other." But at its core, Rubio's vision is both pragmatic and moral (though not in a chastising, finger-waving, Obama-esque way). Yes, he thinks government stimulus just doesn't work. But he also believes something much deeper and more important, the character of our country, is at stake. To go down the road of ever higher taxes to pay for the ever growing welfare state will necessarily mean the erosion of economic liberty and the decline of American military strength. And that's a price he wouldn't be willing to pay, even if we could mathematically.
Of course, Rubio acknowledges "this is not a debate we will solve in the month of August. In fact, I believe it will characterize the rest of this Congress, the 2012 elections and the years that lie ahead." In the coming months and years, the best speaker in the Republican party will have plenty of opportunities to explain why his vision, the vision of economic opportunity, works better and brings about the best for our country.