Marco Rubio and How Ideas and Think Tanks Matter

It’s always a satisfying day when something is written about how ideas truly do matter in American life, with many of the most important and influential ideas conceived, refined, and introduced in brilliant books written by scholars often employed – not incidentally – by think tanks.  Such a fine day was this past Wednesday (November 21), as played out in “The Daily 202,” an excellent political blog by Washington Post writers that’s e-blasted to the world early most mornings.

The lead piece on the 21st, by James Hohmann (with Joanie Greve), was “How Marco Rubio is Retrofitting his Brand of Conservatism for the Trump Era.”  One might read the headline and assume Hohman was eager to accuse Rubio of expediencies and hypocrisies of various sorts, but that’s not what the article was about at all.

Rather, it was a serious review of how Rubio is rethinking how Republicans might better appeal to working-class, middle-class, and suburban voters simultaneously.  And it’s not to take anything away from the independence and seriousness of his reimagining – quite the opposite – to recognize how he clearly has been influenced by several seminal books released in the last few years.  Hohmann opens the blog this way:

THE BIG IDEA: Marco Rubio has been trying to think more from the perspective of a blue-collar worker than a white-collar consumer since he lost the GOP nomination to President Trump two years ago.  The Florida senator says that’s reshaped his view on economic growth, free trade and China.  Lately, he’s been seeking advice from policy experts at the major think tanks on the right as he seeks to fashion what he calls a ‘pro-work’ agenda that can excite Trump’s base supporters while staying true to the conservative principles he’s espoused throughout his political career.

Hohmann mentions Yuval Levin, vice president of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, not that Rubio refers to Levin’s brilliant 2016 book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.”  Yet I somehow trust that if he hasn’t read it, he’s well-familiar with its arguments.

A moment later Rubio perfectly channels Nicholas Eberstadt’s 2016 book, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, when Hohmann quotes him speaking to a Heritage Foundation audience, “For starters, we need to get the millions of what scholars have called the ‘missing men’ back into the labor force.  By some counts, there are upwards of 6 million prime-age able-bodied men who simply do not work and are not even looking.  It’s a national crisis.  It deserves an emergency solution.”  Eberstadt is at the American Enterprise Institute.

Hohmann then cites Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute and his brilliant new book The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.  (No more describing any book noted here as “brilliant,” as they’re all exceptional.)  Cass’s book was released less than two weeks ago, so Rubio perhaps hasn’t had a chance to read it, though he doubtless has read other things he has written.

Hohmann writes about how Rubio has been “hashing out his new ideas with Henry Olson,” who, as with Levin, is at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  Olson’s 2017 book is the The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

Then there were comments by both Rubio and Hohmann showing familiarity with path-breaking interpretations in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  Murray was at the American Enterprise Institute when he wrote the book in 2012.  Going back several decades earlier, major welfare reform might never have happened in 1996 if Murray hadn’t written, in 1984, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, when he was at the Manhattan Institute.  Or if Marvin Olasky hadn’t written The Tragedy of American Compassion, in 1992, when he was at the Heritage Foundation.

Jumping back to last decade, while Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s main gigs in 2008 weren’t at think tanks, I’m sure Rubio knows something about their Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.  With the same said of J. D. Vance’s 2016 book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

From the left, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rubio has drawn usefully from E. J. Dionne’s 2012 book Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent.  Dionne split his time back then between the Brookings Institution, Georgetown University, and the Washington Post.

It all makes a think tanker proud.