In the age of reality politics, Rubio finds his voice

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By the time Marco Rubio arrived in Washington in 2011, his story was legend. Here was the 39-year-old son of a bartender and a maid, refugees from Castro's communism, who had risen to the covers of national magazines. He was on everybody's vice-presidential list — assuming he didn't run for president himself — before he even knew where to find his office. He was the charismatic Latino who could deliver Republicans from demographic irrelevance.

From there, of course, there was really nowhere to go but down. First it came to light that Rubio's parents had actually fled Cuba years before Fidel Castro came to power. Then, in his first big policy stand, Rubio helped stake out a compromise on immigration — only to be rebuked by the conservative wing of his own party in the House. And in the biggest televised moment of his career, Rubio couldn't get through his response to the president's State of the Union address without clumsily groping for a water bottle, like a teenager doing a YouTube video in his bedroom.

Now Rubio finds himself elbowed aside by more bombastic personalities in his caucus, namely Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. The prognosticators who once awaited his every pronouncement have all but stopped listening.

Which is a shame, because Rubio may just now be figuring out what he wants to say.

We do this to certain politicians now, when politics is largely entertainment, and when entertainment is "The Voice." We find someone you've never heard of, someone whose inspiring story can be telegraphed in a few words, and we make him or her an instant celebrity, the one who's going to change every paradigm. Except in our version, there's no Adam Levine or Shakira to teach the contestant how to hit the high note. The star of our show is supposed to walk in the door knowing everything. As if political identity were determined by a contest rather than an intellectual journey.

We did this to Barack Obama after he gave that electrifying speech in Boston back in 2004, and before he'd ever been elected statewide. Once installed in the Senate, Obama tried to figure the place out and eventually dabbled in the business of governance, though none of it turned out very well or very memorably. He ran for president, instead, mostly on the strength of his personal narrative, and it turned out fine for him.

It's clear, though, that Rubio isn't going to be so lucky. Eyeing 2016, he's made himself a visible presence lately on foreign policy, taking a firm stand against Russian aggression in Ukraine. More quietly, though, and in a more sustained way, he's been searching for a new economic framework, some kind of argument that transcends the old debate between more government and less. Rubio has crafted a series of bills and policy speeches that, taken together, hint at an emerging economic worldview. You might call it conservative modernism.

Rubio's main point is that when Washington debates what to do about people like his parents, who struggle to attain the basic comforts of the middle class, that debate is almost always about how to bring back more of the old manufacturing jobs, or how to provide more government assistance to make poverty palatable. But the truth is that a lot of those jobs have permanently migrated to countries with lower standards of living, and Rubio thinks America should cede them.

Why, he asks, would you want to compete for low-skilled jobs with developing countries that are now where America was a century earlier? "We don't make many T-shirts here anymore," Rubio told me when we talked this week. "But we're probably going to make a lot of X-ray machines or airplane engines. Those are better manufacturing jobs, and they pay a lot more, but they're also heavily automated, and they're also going to require a higher level of skill than people had in the 20th century."

One of the answers, Rubio argues, is to do a better job of educating kids for 21st century jobs, rather than the ones their grandparents held. Rubio is hardly alone in this; a lot of politicians will tell you the same thing, and they mouth a lot of rhetoric about the value of alternative education. But Rubio has in mind a frontal assault on the traditional four-year colleges that are increasingly open only to the wealthy.

Rubio wants the federal government to create a pilot program that would make a certain number of internships available only to students of two-year programs, in order to study their relative performance. He wants to force four-year colleges to disclose to entering students the average salaries of graduates in each major before those students borrow money. He wants to cut off government tuition subsidies to the universities that keep raising their tuitions to keep pace.

"The very nature of our economy and our economic lives have changed, and our governing institutions have not adapted to that," Rubio said. "In fact, we're now well behind where we need to be, and it's a marvel that we're growing at 2.4 percent, given that we haven't adjusted to the post-industrial economy."

All of this is part of a nascent agenda to modernize government's approach to economic mobility and to broaden the Republican argument to something beyond what's good for "job creators." In this way, Rubio isn't very far apart from his colleague Paul Ryan, but where Ryan tends to gravitate toward charts and demographics to make his point, Rubio is more comfortable talking — in two languages — about the daily challenges of people whom we now think of as the Democratic base.

"One of the ultimate aims of policymaking is to be relevant," he told me. "And to the extent that I think both parties have failed, but particularly Republicans, it's in the relevance of our debate. We're very good at espousing principles of free enterprise and job creation and how a bigger economy helps everybody, but I think we have to get better at explaining to people how that's going to help them, in their lives.

"Is the Republican Party identified as the bastion of higher-education reform?" Rubio asked. "I think we've certainly become the home of the school-choice movement, and that's a very powerful idea that I support strongly. But I think we also have to extend school choice and school options and school affordability into higher education."

Rubio is closer to the start of this intellectual process than to its end. And, to this point anyway, he's elliptical and tentative when it comes to challenging the dated orthodoxies of his party. When I asked Rubio how he thought his ideas differentiated him from other Republicans of the moment, he demurred. "I don't know that it's about differentiating," he said.

But of course, if we're talking about 2016, it is about differentiating — and this, more than immigration policy or bouts of dry-mouth, could hold Rubio back. The most relevant model here is probably Bill Clinton, who ran for president at a time when his party had lost three straight presidential elections, and who built his own argument in 1992 around reforming the party's dated approach to the economy.

Before Clinton could unify Democrats (mostly) around his growth agenda, he had to make them choose between his way and traditional liberalism. Had he simply run as a smoother, younger version of his party's Washington establishment, eschewing the fight over ideas like free trade and balanced budgets, it's doubtful he would have made much of an impression.

Inherent in Rubio's evolving agenda is a rejection of Republican policies that would cut all forms of government investment, get Washington out of the education business and count on unbridled industry to restore the preglobalization economy. That he's doing the hard work of thinking through these ideas makes him an intriguing candidate. A little fearlessness in pursuit of them might well make him a threat.

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