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Rubio To Release New Book as Longtime Aide Launches Think Tank

June 09, 2023

War in Europe casts an ugly shadow over warm glowing arches and also the predictions of one Thomas Friedman, who, writing for the New York Times, endorsed the thesis of Francis Fukuyama by famously predicting that “no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought against each other.”

But Moscow has McDonald’s. So does Kyiv. They imported American fast food, not liberal democracy. More than 100 Ukrainian franchises closed in a hurry when Russian tanks rolled across the border. A hungry China looks on, meanwhile, as the world grapples with a land war once thought impossible.

The neoliberal dream, one defined by deregulated markets and unfettered global trade, the predominant vision of the last three decades of U.S. foreign policy, where civilized nations were supposed to litigate differences according to Western values, is all but dead.

At least, so says Sen. Marco Rubio. The idea that history has ended, he argues in a book set to be released next week, now needs to end itself. The less-than-cheerful title is “Decades of Decadence: How Our Spoiled Elites Blew America’s Inheritance of Liberty, Security, and Prosperity.”

It is the latest in the ongoing evolution of Rubio, one that saw the Florida senator transform from a darling of the GOP establishment into a populist gadfly armed with policy – an intellectual and political progression aided, in large part, by his longtime chief of staff, Mike Needham. RealClearPolitics is first to report that Needham will leave Capitol Hill, and with Rubio’s blessing, begin a new think tank to aid in that effort.

In an interview with RealClearPolitics, Rubio condemned three decades of those “elites” for assuming that “our country just wouldn’t matter anymore.” He rewinds the clock to at least 1990 when the Soviet Union was crumbling, and the United States was on the eve of what the late Charles Krauthammer described as “a unipolar moment.”

That's when, according to Rubio, another generation of America’s “best and brightest” blew it.

“We started to make economic decisions, not on the basis of what was best for America, but what was in the best interest of the global economy, the international order, and the world,” he said. Washington and Wall Street became infatuated with globalization, ignoring or even selling out America, putting the country on what Rubio calls “a road of slow, inevitable decline.”  

“We were all going to be citizens of the world, consumers and investors in a global economy,” he said of that vision. Great power conflicts would become a thing of the past in a world of liberal, or liberalizing, nations wedded by markets – “we’d be too happy with our cheap, flat-screen TVs to be fighting wars.”

Televisions are thinner and cheaper, too. A lot of other consumer goods are better, but the blessings of global markets haven’t come without a cost. The way Rubio sees it, the dream of the 1990s has turned into a nightmare: America elevated enemies abroad, allowed China to get a seat at the World Trade Organization, hollowing out domestic industries in the process, while casting aside traditional morals.

The new Rubio book, and the work he’s done since his 2016 presidential bid, are in some ways a more sober, academic examination of what former President Donald Trump once described as “American Carnage.”

Rubio took Trump voters both seriously and literally when they expressed dissatisfaction with the old conservative orthodoxies. His project for the last half-decade has been to shape a new “common good conservatism,” one that’s less beholden to free-market pieties and global niceties. His focus, Rubio says, is instead on what benefits working people.

He calls for policies such as overhauling the tax code to promote domestic manufacturing and better wages. The rare Republican in Congress unafraid of tariffs and quotas, Rubio also calls for a stated industrial policy -- not an unbridled free market -- to prioritize investment in strategic sectors for American defense.

To the old guard, this makes him an apostate. To others, he is a populist ideas man, an apostle of the new right. During the Tea Party Era, he was “The Great Right Hope.” But now in the post, or perhaps intra, Trump-Era, there is one thing Rubio will not become anytime soon. The upper chamber, the senator said, is “the place where I can be most productive and effective at this moment in my life and at this moment in our country's history.” And while the new book might read at times like the obligatory manifesto of a candidate for national office, Rubio, who won reelection by more than 1.2 million votes just seven months ago, now sounds content to use “the Senate as the place to push these ideas.” He will not become a candidate in the 2024 presidential election. He believes he can do his best work in Congress.

He’ll be doing it with Mike Needham, Rubio’s longtime chief of staff, helping him in a new, outside role. When Needham first arrived in the Senate from his post at Heritage Action, a New York Times headline blared, “Marco Rubio, Darling of G.O.P. Establishment, Hires a Thorn in Its Side.” The aide went on to work alongside the senator for half a decade as Rubio tore the curtain of GOP orthodoxy and began the work of updating old conservative principles for a more modern, populist age.

“Anybody with any curiosity, coming out of the 2016 cycle, saw a country that faces challenges which the traditional conservative policy agenda was not speaking to,” Needham told RCP. New policy proposals on trade, manufacturing, and defense “put some real policy meat on the bones of a new movement.”

Now, Needham tells RCP that his new organization, America 2100, will begin the work of codifying and institutionalizing the ideas Rubio helped pioneer. “When people look back, the next ten years will be decisive,” Needham said of his mission, “in determining whether America remains strong and China does not rise at our expense, or whether America becomes a vassal state of a more powerful Beijing.”

Rubio has blessed the effort and says that new institutions are necessary because all of Washington continues to act and debate issues “as if it was 10 or 15 years ago and a unipolar world where America could do whatever it wanted and didn’t have to make tough choices.”

He has become a reliable party gadfly, comfortable challenging status quos, albeit up to a point. Last November, Rubio was celebrating a double-digit victory, the GOP was coming to grips with a red wave that never was, and an ill-fated revolt was bubbling beneath the surface against Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Along with others, Rubio called for leadership elections to be delayed. McConnell won reelection anyway. But despite his protest that the GOP needed to reprioritize in a hurry, Rubio doesn’t have any interest in taking on Republican leadership.

“He has his focus, instead, on a general realignment of the Republican party and the country, not climbing the leadership ladder.

“It’s nascent,” he said of a loose coalition that now includes the likes of Sens. JD Vance of Ohio, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Josh Hawley, “but it’s bigger than it was five years ago. And it’s growing.”

When Rubio was railing against China on the Senate floor, he admits feeling “lonely.” Now that sentiment is en vogue. His allies will argue it is because the senator has been frequently prescient.

In February 2019, Rubio released a mammoth report on “China’s blatant industrial espionage and coercion.” Later that year, in a December speech on industrial policy, it was Rubio who warned about Chinese dominance of the supply chains that carry everything from chips to pharmaceuticals. The pandemic wouldn’t bring that issue into focus until March 2020.

In remarks that were canceled because of the pandemic, in the summer of that year, Rubio planned to discuss how deindustrialization, fueled by the neoliberal theory that expanding global markets are an unquestionable good, “bears down with particular force on black Americans.” The next day, George Floyd was murdered.

He was delayed, but not deterred. It was Rubio who led the charge against Amazon for removing the book, “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment” by conservative scholar, Ryan Anderson. He warned Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in a February 2021 letter that the decision to de-platform Anderson had “weighty implications for the future of open discourse in the digital age.” Conservatives have only grown angrier at what they see as censorship in the time since.

Rubio sees a realignment, one that’s happening beyond the halls of Congress. There is a fracture opening and now being laid bare in corporate America between neoliberalism and what he calls “American Marxism.”

“Generally, what would protect you from hysteria is your institutions, your traditions, your foundations,” Rubio said before adding that some of that civil society “had been destroyed by the policy decisions that were made on economics. When you basically send your factories and jobs overseas, those communities collapse. And there’s nothing there to remind people of basic truths and reality.”

Many Fortune 500 companies, in his estimation, were happy to go along with progressive politics. “It’s protection money basically,” he said. “The mob is going to show up and say, ‘We will burn down your business if you don’t pay us our monthly insurance.” It’s how Nike could condemn systemic racism in America while employing enslaved Uyghur Muslims in overseas sweatshops, he writes, or why Coca-Cola turned a blind eye to Chinese humanitarian abuses while sponsoring the Beijing Olympics but boycotting Georgia over its new voter laws. “Again,” he said, “there’s no attachment to country.”

Rubio doesn’t believe he can get a CEO like Tim Cook of Apple, or even Elon Musk, to see themselves and their companies as American enterprises first and foremost. The adage, “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” won’t be updated for Tesla, who built their “gigafactory” in Shanghai.

Rubio has tried to put to paper the scope of the problem he sees. “My focus is on what policymakers need to do about it,” he said of his interactions with multinational corporations. “Their obligation may be to their shareholders and making a return on investment for their company, but our obligation is to the United States.”

“We face a massive test and one that I hope the Republican Party can begin to offer answers to,” Rubio said of his effort to convince conservatives to finally turn away from the old ways to confront the new, modern, existential threats that he sees.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
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