This week, at the American Principles Project State Lunch, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., honored the late Jeff Bell, who passed earlier this year. Jeff Bell was a champion of creating an economy to benefit the American worker and families. At the event, Rubio said the following:
Thank you, Jon, for that introduction. I especially want to thank Sean Fieler, the chairman of the board of APP. There is no more creative or entrepreneurial leader on the right of center today and I thank you for all of the ways you are advancing our common principles. He also paid me 50 bucks to say that, I’m kidding it was only 25. So thank you very much for having me, I’m grateful for the chance to talk to you.
So, Jeff Bell, who is being honored as the namesake of today’s event. Was really an intellectual force of courage and for hope for our country. His clarity of vision you know, inspired some of our most important leaders over the last thirty years, from Jack Kemp to the great Ronald Reagan.
And so I think it’s appropriate in a time when we conservatives, I think are grappling with what our movement means in this new era, we’re gathered here today to discuss some of that. And I think it’s important to for us to think about that issue, he said, that “the simplicity beyond the complexity.” It’s a simple truth, America is not a government America is not an economy, America is a nation. America is a nation made up of workers, and families, and communities, and Americans are a diverse people in need of a unifying national identity that binds us together, as one.
Now we dedicate plenty of time and energy talking about complex policy problems and coming up with complex policy solutions and that’s important. But as we gather, as you do here over the next couple days, and as we do moving forward I think we should follow Jeff’s advice and we should focus first on the simple challenges for if we do not get those right, the complex ones cannot be right either.
Here’s a simple one, we cannot be a strong country, if we do not have strong communities, strong families and strong people. We cannot be a strong country if we do not have a unifying national identity that brings us together to take collective action.
So as I said at the outset, It’s appropriate that we’re honoring Jeff’s legacy today, because the times in which we live, our moment, is not unlike his. When he first started blazing the trail for supply-side economics in the 1970s, conservatism was also undergoing a debate about its identity. And it was doing so in an era of stagflation. And what a President Carter, I believe called a great malaise, Watergate had shattered our people’s faith in our governments institutions. And Vietnam had dealt a blow to our nation’s confidence about its place in the world, and about its future.
Jeffs work inspired a new generation of leaders to emerge from the aftermath of that, the most prominent among them was at that time a former actor, and former Governor of California Ronald Reagan who was in the midst of building up an insurgency against the established Republican Party. Reagan and his fellow reformers had strong and growing support from everyday Americans, not necessarily the people who ran politics, but from the people who decided it. The men and women of our nation, they had strong support. The reason why they did, is because they were guided by simple truths. And they were guided by timeless principles.
And what happened just a few years later? It’s truly remarkable, Reagan wins the presidency, he cuts taxes and he takes on the evil empire which as I look around, we have half of you who are even old enough to know what that means, but people said, you can’t call the Soviet Union that, he took on the evil empire, he was subsequently re-elected winning 49 states in the Electoral College, 49, something unimaginable in today’s modern politics.
He then proceeded to pass tax reform with 97 votes in the Senate. We can’t even get 97 votes today for a resolution honoring Santa Claus. That’s a joke we didn’t have such a resolution. But we probably couldn’t get 97 votes.
And of course at the end of his presidency he reached agreements with the new Soviet Premier, and shortly after he left office the Soviet Union collapsed. And we don’t talk enough about that last point, but I grew up in the 1980’s where, the world was going to end and we were going to have this terrible nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union, our lives, our discussions were entirely built around our two countries, by 1991 it was as if the world had been remade. Overnight, it was startling, we were once told that the Soviet Union was here to stay, and there was nothing we could do about it, and we would need to learn to coexist, and at some point be overwhelmed by them. And to watch the berlin wall come down, and to watch the soviet union collapse, for those of you who lived through that experience it radically changed our world and our view of it.
This is an amazing turn of events that happened in just the span of just over a decade and a half, and it was all possible because visionary reformers challenged the status quo and they turned the common sense and dissatisfaction of the American people into a governing consensus: a consensus we know today as Reaganism.
There are two lessons embedded in that experience, the first is our political system is dynamic, it is not static, and It allows us, it gives us the freedom and flexibility and the opportunity to adjust our policies and our focus to deal with changes occurring in our nation and the world at any given time; and the other lesson is that our Conservatism, is built ideas that flow from a faith in our timeless principles. I believe we live in a time not unlike that one, where we are once again called to do what they did then. And that is to apply these same time tested principles in pursuit of ideas relevant to the unique challenges and the unique opportunities of the early decades of this new 21st Century.
Today, our economy is growing at an impressive rate. A rate that if you juxtapose it on any period in the past would lead to a sense of widespread economic optimism. And yet we have this invasive sense of pessimism, and unhappiness in our nation, people sadly believe we’re are headed in the wrong direction.
Millions of Americans of prime working age have dropped out of the labor force; Marriage rates and birth rates are at an all-time low. Today, America still stands as the world’s single most powerful and influential nation on the planet. And yet we seem to suffer from a nagging sense of insecurity and worse this pervasive sense of national decline. As if our best days could somehow be behind us. And in the meantime authoritarian governments like China are increasing their reach and influence throughout the world.
Now, The answer is to these challenges is not to simply reheat the same policy ideas, as they did in the 1970’s and 1980’s our nation and our world is much different than it was then, the answer is to re-embrace the timeless principles that have always been the foundation for the conservative movement and I believe for America’s exceptionalism. Those timeless principles are: the dignity of work, the family as our central institution, the importance of our communities, And a love for and pride in the greatness of America.
These are the principles that Reagan used to guide him in finding policy answers to the challenges of the later decades of the last century. And now we must use these same principles to guide us in finding answers to the challenges of the early decades of this new century.
Now at the heart of human dignity is that first principle I outlined, is the dignity of work. I know Dr. Robbie George is fundamental to the work that happens here, so I will allow myself to quote the understanding of Pope John Paul the Second, when he wrote: “it is through man’s labor that not only the fruits of our activity but also human dignity, brotherhood and freedom must increase on earth.” and this is why no tax cut alone and no innovative government program alone, will strengthen our country or allow our people to flourish, if we do not first strengthen the institution of work.
Today it’s wealth, not work, that is the stated goal of our economic policies, and there’s nothing wrong with wealth per say, but the result of a debate solely focused on wealth is that our economic debate is generally a choice between narrow economic growth with redistribution versus narrow economic growth without redistribution. I’m here to tell you that is a false choice. Those are not the only two choices before us. And I would also tell you that both of these choices are not American, in fact, they are un-American, because neither of these paths lead to a society in which Americans find dignity in their work, dignity in the work that allows them to provide for their families with their own labor.
Americans are not simply consumers whose happiness cannot be judged simply by how many things they can afford to buy. And we’re in that season where every commercial is here to tell you, how happy your wife or husband will be, or your children will be if you buy this. But Americans are not just consumers, and our happiness cannot be measured by how many things we can acquire with money, Americans are human beings. And human beings, no matter how much money you give them or how much money you allow them to make, human beings cannot flourish without the sense of accomplishment, and pride and sufficiency that comes with dignified work.
Which is why conservatism cannot simply be about how much we grow the economy or how well the stock market is performing. Conservatism has to be first and foremost, when it comes to economics, about providing our people the opportunity to have dignified and productive work. Jobs that allow them to pour themselves into a task, turn their efforts into productivity, and allow them to use that productivity to invest in themselves, in their family, and in their community. Now of course, we want to see strong economic growth. You can’t create dignified work without economic growth. Standing economies don’t create jobs. But it has to be the right type of economic growth, it has to be pro work economic growth. Growth that creates good jobs, not just good economic statistics.
And if you get the principles right, and you get them right at the front end, then the policies will be right too. We support tax cuts, but not just any tax cuts, or tax cuts for the sake of tax cuts, we support pro work tax cuts. Like the immediate deduction for new capital expenditures, known as full expensing. Why? Because it encourages companies to invest their profits in their product and the workers making it. To make them more productive and as a result provide stabler jobs. We passed a strong version of that in last year’s tax law, and we should make it even stronger.
We support trade. But not just the theory of free trade, we support trade that is free, but also fair, and also pro work. Trade that helps us create good jobs, dignified jobs for Americans. China’s export trade to the U.S. is anything but free or fair or pro-work. Our access to China is certainly not free or fair. For two decades we have allowed China to cheat and steal their way into a position of dominance, or potential dominance in many of the industries of the future that will create the dignified jobs of the future. And that simply cannot continue.
We must leave behind Economic elitism and its cult-like faith in financial engineering or redistribution and we have to replace it with economic policies who at its core have a commitment to the dignity of work
The second time tested principle we must reinvigorate is the institution of the family. The family is the central institution in any society. It’s in the family where you pass down values, it’s the family that teaches you to love, it’s the family that teaches you work ethic, it’s the family that passes down traditions, it’s the family that provides support in times of tragedy or distress.
Today family is an institution under assault and in decline. In the 1950s, fewer than 5 percent of children were born out outside of marriage. Today, the number is over 40 percent. Adding to this, many families are being constantly buffeted by modern economic pressures that actually discourage family life, and by social engineering that seeks to replace family life. Choose to have one parent stay at home, and you can’t afford the house close to your place of work—or possibly afford to buy a home at all in many places. Have both parents work and you’ll watch childcare costs cancel out most of the income you’re earning from that second job. The result is that today young parents across this country feel like they live in an anti-family race to the bottom where the “winners” are those who spend the least amount of time with their children or have the least number of children in the first place.
Government is limited in what we it can do to strengthen family life in America. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything about it. If family is the most important institution in our society, then the simple reality is that in all of our policies we should be pro-family to the extent possible. That’s why last year I fought so hard even against members of my own party to expand the child tax credit, to help working families make ends meet by keeping more of their own money.
And I’m proud that next year, in a few months, or in a few weeks, when these families head home to do their tax returns, more of the money they earn by working will be in their pocket and in their hands to help them with the rising cost of raising a family in the 21st century.
That’s why I’ve worked with you here at the American Principles Project to put forward the first Republican plan for national paid family leave. Not a big government plan, not a plan that creates national debt. Not a plan that mandates employers to give it, but a plan that recognizes that family if family is the most important institution in society, and if being a parent is the most important job anyone will ever have, how can we our policies not reflect that?
Why would we not make sure working parents get to keep more of their own money to help with the cost of raising a family? And why would we not make it easier for new parents to spend more time with their children without having to go bankrupt or into debt by advancing their retirement and not placing a burden on their employers or destroying their job in the process? As free people we have the right to structure our lives as we wish. But that should not keep us from pointing out a fundamental and simple truth: that getting married, having children, and supporting your family is a time tested foundation for a rooted life and flourishing life.
The third institution that is critical and the core of our principles is community life. These are the groups that operate in the space between the individual and government. As the sociologist Robert Nisbet has said “people don’t come together to be together; people come together to do something together.” It’s in community that they can do this. All of the elements of community life have faced an almost two-decade assault from the government and our culture. Thankfully, under the current administration we have seen a halt from the federal government in the attacks on religious liberties in our churches and our schools. We’ve seen an appointment of judges who will uphold the Constitution. But we need to do more.
We must give our community institutions a role to play in strengthening our society. Allow them to administer some of our safety net programs, train workers for productive employment, teach our students to be good citizens. Government has an important role in our country. But we have to recognize its limits. Many of our problems simply don’t have a government solution. Which is why we need strong communities and the churches and civic organizations that make those solutions possible. I would add that the final one is just as important as the other three, and that is finally at the heart of human dignity is the need to have a sense of belonging. Belonging to something bigger than you, and being a part of something special and unique.
Now, patriotism is the love of one’s country. The term Nationalism is also love for your nation, but it is also the belief that your nation is better. Now, I understand why some recoil at that term. When a nation finds its identity, as many do, as the homeland of a race or ethnicity, nationalism can become a path to racial or ethnic supremacists to gain power. But unlike many nations in Europe and around the world, America has never been, is not now, and must never be a racial or ethnic homeland. Our national identity is not a skin color, it is not a race, our national identity is not an ethnicity. Our national identity is that anyone can be an American.
Our identity is rooted in our founding principle that all people are created equal and that all people are born with a God-given right to life, to liberty and to pursue happiness. And therefore an authentic American nationalism can never be racial or ethnic because America was founded on an explicit rejection of identity politics. This is not a national myth, it’s not something we say to ourselves so that we feel better about ourselves. It is a fact that you can witness up close and firsthand every day in every city or in any state in this great nation.
It is a fact that it has been one of the drivers behind our incredible national achievements. Confronting great challenges and achieving great things is literally in our people’s DNA, because every single American is the descendant of a pilgrim, or an immigrant and or a slave, of men and women who overcame extraordinary obstacles to stake their claim to their dreams.
If you have any further doubts about what truly is our identity, ask yourself this: When America wins a gold medal at the Olympics or lands one of these fancy probes on Mars do we think and view it as an achievement for the scientist or athletes ethnicity or do we view it as an achievement by America and an American? When a soldier dies in combat, does your heart break at the member of a race or instead are you heartbroken at the death of a fellow American? Ethnic and racial nationalism is a deadly poison. It is an anti-American poison.
Instead, I hope we seek an authentic American nationalism. One that takes pride in and exalts what take pride in here in and exalts what we have done here in the American Experiment and that is show the world what happens when free people of every race, ethnicity, gender and religion can achieve, individually and working together, when they live in a place that values and protects their God-given rights.
I’ll close by pointing out what I said at the outset. It is difficult to overstate how historic the changes we are living through are around the world and here at home. These changes aren’t just big. They are happening at a scale and pace that no people that have ever lived have ever faced. And when you have rapid change, it always feels like chaos. And chaos and disorder can lead a people to seek security, sometimes by retreating from each other or the world or by pretending that we can go back to the world the way it once was.
Yesterday is gone. It is never coming back. Tomorrow is coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop the future. Instead of fearing the present, we should embrace it. Instead of trying to avoid the future, we should try to shape it, shape it by applying our time tested principles that haven’t just worked for the last two hundred years in this nation, but they’ve worked every time, everywhere that they have been tried.
And we should do this the way Reagan and Jeff Bell and others did in their time. By relying on these timeless principles in search for answers to the challenges before us today. This is not an option. I believe with all my heart is the only option. Because if we fail to do this, then we will forever be known as the first generation in our history that left their children worse off than themselves. The first Americans that failed to pass on a better country than the one that followed.
For two centuries, the men and women of this nation, your parents, your grandparents, the people who stood where we stand now–they confronted challenges. They faced extraordinary odds, I’ll submit to you, some much greater than we face now. And yet they did what they needed to do. And therefore you and I have been blessed with the opportunity to citizens of the single greatest nation that mankind has ever known. If the task feels too big for someone who hears it, just remember that we are not called to make America perfect. We are called to make her better. Each generation taking that step forward. Each generation making it better than the one that was left for them.
Because what is at stake is not just the future of our country, but I truly believe what’s at stake is the future of the world. For if the world’s most powerful nation is no longer the one that believes all people are created equal and the world’s most powerful nation no longer the one that believes our rights do not come from government or our leaders, but from God, then what kind of world would that be? It would certainly not be better, and I will submit to you that it would be much darker, much more violent, much more oppressive, and much worse than anything any of us have ever lived through.
America remains that hope. I know it first hand from my family’s experience, and from the men and women I live among this very day. You’ve never seen people who love our nation more than those who know what life is like outside of our land. People who know what it’s like to live in a place that tells you that your future is determined on the day that you were born because of who your parents are or where you came from.
And it’s people in many cases who are Americans by choice that I often find inspiration from. They know what life is like outside America. We should never forget how special what we have is, and how hard we should fight to keep it that way. And that is exactly what I think we will do. Despite all the negativity, despite all the circumstances of our day, despite all of the pessimism, I truly do believe with all my heart that in the end we will get this right. That we will do what those who came before us did. We will do what Americans have always done.
And when we do, I believe that our children will be freer and more prosperous than any people that have ever lived. That we will leave for them a perfect union, and that when our work is done history will say of us that we did what needed to be done, and our children inherit from us what we inherited from our parents–the single greatest nation in the history of all mankind.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was elected to the Senate in 2010.
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