In a recent speech at the Reagan Library, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio asserts that the decision of America in this last century to collectively care for those that have fallen behind "actually weakened us as a people." While his words may have been a dog whistle for the right wing, I took a double take.
Was this the same Marco Rubio who first ran on a platform of early childhood education and affordable housing for the elderly? Rubio's thesis, packaged in lofty prose, is an extreme political view that parrots a bedrock tea party premise that America's problems somehow stem from government doing too much for people from whom we expect too little.
These programs, Rubio argues, made our country weak, bankrupt and threatened the "exceptionalism" that defined us. There is nothing novel about blaming your problems on a boogeyman. Whether immigrants, or communists, or witches, or those that have been left behind or can't fight back, the American experience suggests it can be an effective political strategy for at least the short term.
Of course, the notion that the social programs of the last century — namely Medicare and Social Security — fostered irresponsible behavior is patently absurd. No American became sicker or older because of the existence of these programs. Americans are living longer, healthier lives, in part due to the security they created. No, it's not that American exceptionalism is being lost, it's that Rubio and the tea party have lost sight of what makes America exceptional.
Our collective decision to make sure our weakest, oldest, and infirm are cared for is not a national failing — it is one of our greatest strengths. No, it has not been a wealthy few that defines us as exceptional — rather it has been our commitment to raising all boats in the harbor and supporting the middle class.
No, it has not been our military — the most powerful in history — that sets us apart, but that we have used that force to protect freedom and fight tyranny. And no, our nation is special not because God made Americans special — but because we exercised the free will he gave us to become a moral example in the community of nations. And if we ever relinquish that mantle … we lose what has made us the greatest nation in the history of the world. Rubio's argument is no better or different than every past attempt by the right wing to use lofty language to rationalize wrongheaded policies that help a few well connected or advance a partisan agenda. But "trickle-down" economics and "compassionate conservatism," aren't truly policies, they are public relations gimmicks intended to make people feel better about disregarding who we are.
The proof the argument is so weak, or blatantly partisan, is its own inconsistencies and obvious ironies. They express outrage at America's finances, pointing the finger directly at a president who inherited policies that many of them created and embraced.
They don't want people to have a free ride, but reject health care reform that requires everyone to take responsibility and insure their own health so that others won't have to pay. They believe Americans can't sustain Social Security, but somehow believe we can and must sustain special interest giveaways and, yes, tax breaks for a select few. Don't misunderstand, America has real challenges. But so many of our fault lines stem from a generational failure to invest in the education of our work force, or the unwillingness of our leaders to engage an honest discussion with their constituents rather than just feeding them tired old cliches or partisan finger-pointing.
Now is not the time to retreat from who we have always aspired to be. The inscription on the Statute of Liberty isn't a mere tourist attraction, it is the calling of an exceptional nation that seeks to embrace a higher purpose.
© 2011 Miami Herald