It’s among the most repeated of all political cliches: “Elections are about the future, not the past.” Overused or not, the principle is one most political professionals take very seriously.
Note, for example, a Jeb Bush backer arguing the other day, “If donors are wistful about the past they can wait for Mitt [Romney].” Note, neither Bush nor Romney has won an election since 2002 – and both of them got a head start in politics because of their fathers – so there’s an inherent challenge associated with them presenting themselves as the Face of the Future.
But then there’s Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who can at least claim a more forward-thinking outlook. In fact, the Florida Republican is arguably preoccupied with the subject.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) criticized former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an interview with Katie Couric for Yahoo News, saying her policies are “20th century relics.”“If we don’t begin to address 21st century problems with 21st century ideas, we’re going to leave millions of people behind permanently,” Rubio said. “We can’t afford that. That would be a death blow to the American dream.”
The senator used similar rhetoric on Fox News the other day: “[T]he truth is, the 20th century is over. The 21st century is here. The future is now. We need to begin to address 21st century problems with 21st century ideas. “
And at face value, that’s not a bad pitch at all. Rubio is young in a party that relies on older voters for support, he’s Latino in a party that relies on white voters for support, and he’s energetic in a party stuck with a stale, discredited agenda.
The problem, though, is with Rubio’s approach to governing. The senator’s most notable recent contribution to the public discourse, for example, was unpersuasive condemnations of President Obama’s breakthrough foreign policy towards Cuba.
The likely Republican presidential candidate who has no use for “20th century relics” is the same Republican defending an ineffective trade embargo that was created in 1960 and failed to produce any meaningful results over the course of 54 years.
Rubio’s problem, in other words, is the disconnect between a perfectly nice pitch and the substance needed to back it up.
I’m all for “21st century ideas,” but it’s a tough sell from a policymaker who opposes marriage equality. Rubio doesn’t believe in climate science. He had a forward-thinking approach to immigration, but then he walked away from it. On social insurance programs, Rubio even wants to roll back the clock on Medicare and Social Security.
Rubio’s challenge in the coming months will be reconciling a rhetorical approach to the future and a substantive commitment to the past. That’s no easy task.