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  1. Florida Politics

Sen. Marco Rubio charts conservative solutions to vexing problems in 'American Dreams'

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio talks with Florida reporters in his Washington office on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. [ALEX LEARY    |   Times]
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio talks with Florida reporters in his Washington office on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. [ALEX LEARY | Times]
Published Jan. 28, 2015

WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio wastes no time in his new book, American Dreams, going after Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On page nine of the forward, a lament that the dream is fading for many, the Florida Republican argues that Clinton "has proven herself wedded to the policies and programs of the past."

He derides her as a big-government, high-tax Democrat and declares: "The election of Hillary Clinton to the presidency, in short, would be nothing more than a third Obama term. Another Clinton presidency would be a death blow to the American Dream."

The attack is an unambiguous sign that Rubio has his eyes on a 2016 run for president and his book, to be published Tuesday by Sentinel, is deliberately timed as he nears a decision.

But Rubio knows partisan rhetoric only goes so far.

He spends much of the book assessing the current state of America and offering solutions to problems as varied as poverty, student-loan debt and the strain on Social Security.

Some of his ideas are unconventional, like a "student investment plan" allowing businesses that pay for workers' college tuition to get a percentage of their after-graduation pay. He compares it to what "Ziggy Stardust himself, David Bowie," did in the late 1990s by selling shares of his albums' future sales to raise cash. He dismisses criticism of indentured servitude as "silly and inaccurate," and lays out safeguards.

In substance and tone, Rubio presents a decidedly conservative vision, but he strives not to completely alienate a broader audience — among other ways, his nuanced opposition to same-sex marriage and his back and forth on immigration — and seeks to show that Republicans stand for more than saying no.

"Republicans haven't been creative or innovative enough in offering solutions," Rubio writes. "We have spent plenty of time opposing the president's agenda, but not nearly enough time applying our principles of limited government and free enterprise to the challenges of our time."

The challenge is that other Republicans recognize that now, as well. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has moved swiftly toward a run for president and complicated Rubio's entry, also has been talking of an eroding American Dream, the need to lift up the disadvantaged and confronting big problems, from education to immigration.

Rubio once called Bush a "one-man idea factory," but, in his book, Rubio stakes a hard claim to that mantle. He gives credit to the so-called reform conservatives, such figures as writer Yuval Levin and Rep. Paul Ryan, and such think tanks as the American Enterprise Institute that informed many of his ideas. But the purpose of the book is to spotlight Rubio as someone who can bring it all home, to lead a movement, as he puts it, to "restore the land of opportunity."

American Dreams is a different book from Rubio's first, the 2012 memoir An American Son, that told the story of his upbringing by working-class Cuban immigrant parents and was peppered with details about his high school football days in Miami, his brief time in the Mormon church and his gripping 2010 Senate race against Charlie Crist. Casual readers will not find his new book as engaging and, at times, Rubio comes across like he's trying to prove he's got intellectual chops to match his speaking skills and youthful looks.

Rubio, though, presents a thoughtful menu of ideas and the 208-page book moves along. He employs the stories of people he has met to illustrate problems and solutions. We meet Kristeen, a mother of two who struggles to pay for day care, rent and food, and must rely on government assistance.

"She is not a victim, nor is she a 'taker,' " Rubio writes.

Without saying it directly, Rubio is trying to move beyond some of the rhetoric employed by Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, who came across as denigrating to struggling Americans. Rubio is trying to be a more compassionate Republican. On paper, he succeeds.

Throughout the book, amid heavy critiques of liberal policies, Rubio makes the argument that government should get out of the way, but not entirely. In some ways, he calls for more government.

He outlines an idea he developed with Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a fellow Republican, that would substantially increase the child tax credit. He also calls for a "federal wage enhancement" that would replace the Earned Income Tax Credit, which Rubio faults for coming as a lump sum that can be blown "on year-end vacations or flat-screen TVs."

"Under my plan, workers making less than $20,000 would receive a monthly 30 percent credit from the government," Rubio writes. "This would allow an unemployed individual to take a job that pays, say, $18,000 a year — which on its own is not enough to make ends meet — but then receive a wage enhancement to make the job a better alternative to collecting unemployment insurance. This wage enhancement would gradually diminish up to a yearly income of $40,000."

Critics of this idea say Rubio, who opposes raising the minimum wage, would be giving a gift to corporate America and subsidize low-paying jobs. He argues the idea would function like a minimum-wage increase while boosting available jobs and not "force employers to pass higher labor costs along to consumers."

He also wants to rework federal poverty programs into a "Flex Fund" that would allow states to come up with innovative ways to spend the money. Notably, Rubio does not call for cutting the available money, just transferring it to the states, which could keep the extra money if poverty goes down. Again, some critics, including some on the right, are skeptical that states should be left with that responsibility.

Rubio outlines changes to Social Security (drawing back benefits for wealthy retirees, eliminating the payroll tax for workers who reach retirement age) and Medicare (shifting to a "premium support system" that would give seniors a fixed amount of money to purchase coverage, either from Medicare or a private provider).

Rubio, who readily admits his mother depends on Social Security and Medicare, says changes must be made and takes another shot at Clinton, saying she hasn't offered serious proposals. Clinton is widely expected to enter the race, but has not done so.

"The next president of the United States will be unable to serve two full terms without confronting this looming crisis," Rubio writes. "The sooner we act, the less disruptive these reforms will be. In these pages I have presented an agenda for addressing the crisis head-on. I'm ready to take whatever political fallout it generates. But most important, I am eager to work with anyone — Republican or Democrat — who will work in good faith on these reforms."

That brave front contrasts a glaring retreat contained in the book.

Rubio spent 2014 backing away from comprehensive immigration reform, an issue that left him in tough shape with conservative activists who accused him of promoting amnesty. His book outlines an incremental approach with a heavy emphasis on security.

He writes about amnesty as "irresponsible," and avoids any mention of "citizenship," though he says it would be unwise to grant legal status to immigrants, but not allow them to become full members of the society.

Rubio insists he's not caving. He still supports tackling the whole problem, he says, but notes politically there isn't an appetite for a sweeping approach to a problem that has vexed Congress for decades.

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