Three senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio, gave a preview Sunday of the coming Republican presidential primary debate exposing differences on foreign policy while holding the party line on taxes.
Rubio was on stage with Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as part of the annual winter retreat held by Freedom Partners, a Koch brothers organization. The discussion, which was webcast, was cordial but saw the biggest divide over foreign policy.
"We've tried for 50 years and it hasn't worked," Paul said of the Cuban embargo.
Rubio disagreed, calling it "leverage" and suggesting President Barack Obama got almost nothing in dealing with the Castros. Rubio took on Paul's argument about President Richard Nixon opening up ties to China, pointing out that China is still an oppressive country. Rubio, however, doesn't think the U.S. should cut off ties with China because of its geopolitical importance.
On Iran, Paul said he did not support adding new sanctions while talks are under way to halt the country's nuclear ambitions. "If you do (more sanctions) in middle of the negotiations, you're ruining it," he said.
Rubio, however, called Iran a deep threat to America and suggested no option — including military strikes — should be taken off the table. Rubio asserted Iran was stringing things along to get closer to nuclear capability. Cruz called Iranian leaders "Islamic nut cases."
Mostly the men agreed on the issues and mostly they refused to answer direct questions posed by ABC's Jonathan Karl. They avoided saying whether the minimum wage should be abolished, though Rubio did say he opposed an increase (arguing it would cost jobs) but wasn't calling to repeal the mandate.
At one point Karl brought up the "$10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increase" moment from the 2012 GOP presidential primary. All three senators danced around but effectively said they would not take that deal. "You can't tax your way out of this problem anyway," Rubio said.
Jeb Bush, who will likely compete for the nomination with the men on stage in Palm Springs, criticized that inflexibility while testifying in 2012 before Congress. And some Republican governors are starting to call for more taxes.
But it would be unsafe politically to call for tax increases and Rubio, Cruz and Paul know as much.
Rubio mostly passed up a chance to criticize Mitt Romney, but Cruz directly criticized Romney's 2012 contention that 47 percent of Americans mooch off the government. "What the voters heard was 'We don't have to worry about the 47 percent,' " Cruz said.
Paul said Romney lacked a "visceral" connection with voters. Rubio played nice and said Romney ran the best campaign he could. "He's someone who's earned the right to decide whatever it is he wants to do. I don't want to sit here and talk bad about the guy."
Rubio talked about shoring up Social Security and Medicare and noted how people are living longer and willingly working into their 70s or longer. That brought laughter from the crowd. "What's the chuckles for?" Rubio said with an awkward laugh.
But Rubio may have drawn the most applause lines throughout the night. He looked confident and was eager to sound off on policy, reciting figures and historical facts. He did not pass up the chance to counter Paul but the sniping did not come close to Paul's trolling of Rubio on Twitter re: Cuba.
As the forum went on, Democrats sent out missives to reporters:
Marco Rubio talked to the Koch Brothers tonight about how worried working class families are about affording college," one read. "They'll probably be pretty mad at their senator, then, considering he:
• Voted against Bank on Students, to help borrowers refinance their student loans.
• Voted for legislation to slash Pell Grants.
• Is opposed to the President's Community College plan for those who are willing to work for it.
We're sure Florida families, like us, are worried about this problem. It'd probably be nice if he stopped opposing solutions.