Rubio in Lakeland: The Message

I had the opportunity yesterday to hear Sen. Marco Rubio speak at an event in Lakeland, Florida, where I live. I’ve been a Rubio supporter from the beginning of his quest to become a United States senator, and have always appreciated his direct approach whenever I’ve heard him speak. This was the third time I’ve heard him in person, but given his high-profile stance on immigration reform, and the storm of criticism he’s faced from his fellow conservatives, I was particularly interested in how he would handle that issue in his talk. I’ll get to that.

Rubio’s theme was the future of the Republican party. What must Republicans believe and do to regain momentum? He stated at the start that the party had to be true to its beliefs and not just do whatever would bring short-term political gain. Republicans, he said, had to remain principled.

His message had three parts as he charted the course for Republican ascendance:

  1. Be the party of strong national defense. America invites trouble when it is weak. While we cannot get involved in a multitude of foreign escapades, we have to be strong and vigilant to protect ourselves. There will be times when we have to intervene overseas to stave off a threat; we must be ready to do so when necessary.
  2. Be the party of upward mobility. He took dead aim at the misrepresentations of Republicans, noting you can’t allow the opposition to define you—that definition will always be a lie. While Democrats focus on being envious of the rich, Republicans, he urged, should concentrate on showing the way for raising people up and allowing them to succeed. Instead of tearing down the rich, congratulate them, and move as many people as possible into that category. Republicans should be the party that is truly for the downtrodden, offering a path for them to get out of their situation rather than blaming those who have done better. He extolled the nature of America and the vision of a shining hill (without using those exact words) that was reminiscent of the Reagan approach to inspiring people.
  3. Be the problem-solving party. This is where he spoke on immigration. He took on the critics, but in an earnest, thoughtful way. He stressed that our current immigration system is already amnesty. We hardly know who or where those eleven million illegals are. There is no system for tracking them. Four million of them came here legally, but overstayed their visas, and our current system provides no accountability for finding them. Rubio freely acknowledged the proposed plan, of which he became the public voice, is not all it should be, but he sees it as an improvement on what passes for an immigration policy now. He is open to strengthening it, admitting that border enforcement has to be one of the keys, and that it’s difficult to trust the present administration with carrying out any meaningful enforcement. He got involved, he said, because someone has to take the initiative to begin the process for changing the status quo. He stressed that Republicans have to be the courageous party, willing to tackle the hard problems and provide viable solutions.

Some have accused Rubio of being naïve, of not realizing he is being “used” by the Democrats on this issue. Maybe, but I got the impression he’s gone into this with eyes wide open, understanding the political risks. If his input can push immigration policy in a more positive direction, he will have performed a public service. We’ll have to see how that turns out ultimately. Rush Limbaugh, for one, now senses that Rubio’s influence might be more than his critics have been willing to believe.

Overall, his message to the audience was that simply criticizing Obama is not enough. He believes the voters are souring on Obama’s policies, and that when the next presidential election arrives, they will be looking for alternatives. If Republicans don’t offer genuine alternatives, they will lose again. Therefore, Republicans need to be the party of alternatives.

Rubio handled himself well. He was poised and clear in his message. The message is sound. Are Republicans listening?