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Imagine for a minute that Rubio had taken a few swigs before the cameras started rolling, that he'd delivered the rebuttal flawlessly, and that the media had to engage what he said in a less frivolous way. Maybe the consensus would've been that the speech was boring or unoriginal and everyone would have forgotten it. But to the viewing public it would have illuminated the GOP's collective decision to promote Marco Rubio as a public figure in lieu of reconsidering its losing agenda.
For the most part, Rubio's speech was a string of banalities that didn't sway public opinion when Republicans mainstreamed them the first time around. Solyndra got a shout out. So did a balanced budget amendment - a genuinely dangerous idea, but one Republicans only return to knowing it will never come to pass and that they'd abandon if it ever gained traction in a serious way.
Almost by accident, though, Rubio also revealed that the GOP has retained the core of the party's economic worldview. By my count, here are the three most damning lines.
- "This idea - that our problems were caused by a government that was too small - it's just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies."
- "When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can't control the weather - [Obama] accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air."
- "I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother. But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now, is in favor of bankrupting it. Republicans have offered a detailed and credible plan that helps save Medicare without hurting today's retirees."
Translating those in order: government agencies handing out loans to the undeserving poor in minority communities - not deregulation on a massive scale - caused the 2008 financial crisis; climate change can't be mitigated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but even if it could it wouldn't be worth the effort; and we Republicans still stand by our plan to privatize Medicare for everyone except the people already in the system who by the way overwhelmingly vote Republican.
Rubio also, but more subtly, hinted at the discredited idea that lowering the top marginal tax rate will uncork a geyser of economic growth.
These are views that have marginalized the GOP over the past four years. But rethinking the agenda that attends to them has turned out to be too tall an order for the GOP. Easier to foist Rubio into the spotlight to propound it more gently than Mitt Romney did, and then hope his youth, ethnicity, and support for immigration reform will be the talismans that reverse the party's hemorrhaging of minority and immigrant voters.
That lazy, cynical strategy was naked on the stage Tuesday night. Republicans should be thrilled Rubio got a touch of dry mouth at the wrong moment.