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June 26, 2014 10:51 AM Rubio the Reformer

By Ramesh Ponnuru

In a hostile take on Bill Clinton’s campaign during the 1992 presidential primaries, two left-wing journalists wrote that his supporters “fired off neoliberal proposals like a Salad Shooter spews lettuce shreds.”

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, seems to have adopted a similar approach. In his case, however, it’s conservative reforms that he is spitting out. Let’s hope other Republicans are starting to listen.

In a speech today, Rubio explained how his conservative proposals would make a positive difference in Americans’ lives — something a lot of Republican politicians oddly haven’t even tried to do in recent years. The theme was making it easier for people to achieve economic security in an insecure age by bringing down the cost of living.

In these respects, Rubio sounds very much like a group of people who have been called “reform conservatives.” Like them, Rubio thinks that the country doesn’t need to expand the federal government but does need to apply a series of conservative reforms to dysfunctional institutions like the health-care system and the tax code. And like the reform conservatives, Rubio thinks that Republicans need to apply “the principles of our founding to the challenges and opportunities facing Americans in their daily lives.”

The program he outlined also bears a strong resemblance to the one reformers have been promoting. He would break with the most doctrinaire supply-siders to expand the tax credit for children. If he had his way, no longer would Republican tax policy be focused exclusively on the tax rates faced by corporations and rich people. He’d replace President Barack Obama’s health-care law with conservative reforms, not just repeal it. He’d take on what he, like the reformers, calls “the entrenched higher education cartel” by reforming the accreditation process and overhauling the student-loan system.

And he’d modernize entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, slowing their growth to make them more affordable — he’d raise the retirement age, for one thing — while also making them more market-friendly.

As reform-minded conservatives have kept scribbling, a lot of commentators in the media have raised doubts about whether any actual politicians would find their ideas promising. For a while it seemed that only Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who advanced several of these ideas, was paying attention. Today’s speech is the clearest evidence yet that another Republican politician — a very high-profile and ambitious one — is tying his political fortunes to these ideas.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist for Bloomberg View and a senior editor at the National Review.

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