July 09, 2015

There are many appealing elements of Ronald Reagan’s announcement of his candidacy in November 1979: optimism, clarity, logic of expression and content, a theme. The most appealing element though, to me, is that he treated his viewers, listeners, and readers as adults. Marco Rubio’s announcement has some of Reagan’s elements but fails to treat the electorate like adult citizens.

Let’s take the good in Rubio’s speech first. He offers gratitude for the blessings of America and an optimism for its future that is Reaganesque in its scope and ardor. The Rubio family story is the American Dream: a father and mother born into poverty in Cuba who would not accept the destitute fate that awaited them but immigrated to America, accepted the hardest jobs, lived with dignity and left their children a better life.

Marco Rubio connects his family’s rise back to those (well, some of those) who built this country. Rubio situates Cuban refugees within the American experience: “Their story is part of the larger story of the American miracle. How, united by a common faith in their God given right to go as far as their talent and work would take them, a collection of immigrants and exiles, former slaves and refugees, became one people, and together built the freest and most prosperous nation ever.”

Rubio’s primary audience might have been cheered to hear of a nation united by a common faith, and I’m sure they read into the comments which common faith he meant. The reality is quite different. A trickier problem is with his praise of “former slaves.” Might he not have praised the “unrequited toil” (from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural) of former slaves building the country before they were former slaves?

Rubio opened by attaching himself to our religious traditions: “After months of deliberation and prayer about the future of our country, I have come here tonight to make an announcement on how I can best serve her.” His lone biblical quotation is self-referential, regarding the test he faces in the campaign: It is from Joshua 1:9 “Do not tremble or be dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." While I do not doubt that the next year will try all the candidates, Rubio might have provided a quotation more pertinent to the people he seeks to lead, from Psalm 12:5-9:

“Because the poor are being oppressed,

because the needy are sighing,

I will now arise,” says the Lord,

“I will establish in safety those who yearn for it.”

Perhaps I’m asking too much of an announcement largely meant to appeal to primary voters. Any announcement by a candidate of the party out of power is going to tell a story of decline, and Rubio’s does; but he ties that decline not just to the Obama administration but to an older generation of politicians including, of course, Jeb Bush.

In one paragraph that apparently was meant to convey substance, Rubio said this (my editorial comments in parentheses):

If we reform our tax code (what would it look like?) and reduce regulations (which ones?) and control spending (by what means?) and modernize our immigration laws (potential trouble here) and repeal and replace Obamacare (with what?). If we do these things...

Let’s contrast Rubio’s empty calorie buffet with Reagan on just one issue: energy. Reagan dedicated eight paragraphs of his announcement speech to energy, paragraphs that were well constructed and logical in sequence. He identified the problem, the source of the problem, and proposals to fix the problem. Agree with him, disagree with him, he offered the nation his ideas for where to lead us. He treated Americans like adults.

For the good in Rubio’s speech, for his inspiring family story, I give him a passing grade. But I fret about grade inflation.

Marco Rubio, Ronald Reagan

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