Political Hay

Principled Compromise

Marco Rubio on taxes and the elusive balanced budget.

By 6.22.12

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As millions of NPR listeners made their way home in Thursday afternoon's oppressive heat, their windows rolled up and AC on (incidentally allowing them to hear the radio more clearly), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio managed to achieve three important goals: 1. Sound simultaneously intelligent, principled, and likeable; 2. Make a principled case against raising taxes; 3. Make an equally principled case for compromising with the opposition to fix the nation's federal budget mess before it becomes an irreversible disaster.

NPR obviously is not a hotbed of potential Republican votes. But that is not the point. If Rubio can effortlessly articulate a strong conservative message that sounds reasonable and maybe even slightly appealing to your average NPR listener, what might he be able to do with independent voters who are genuinely conflicted about which oval to fill in this November (or Novembers after that)?

First, the compromise question. Rubio was of course asked about his willingness to compromise. Republicans are always asked this, as though it is a character flaw unique to members of their party. Rubio gave not just a strong answer, but the politically and constitutionally correct one:

"I think we should always remind ourselves that while we should never compromise our principles, particularly the principles we were elected on, there's always room to compromise on ideas about how to put those principles into practice. I think that's where the debate has to happen.

"And I constantly remind people that our Constitution that enshrines freedoms on paper also gave us a system of government that requires us to find solutions to our problems by working with people we disagree with."

That one is over the fence and not coming back.

As expected, the next question was the subtle, "then are you willing to raise taxes?" question.

ROBERT SIEGEL: You're facing a fiscal crisis at the end of this year, for example. You just assume you're going to have to vote for something that's going to include big elements you don't like. And Democrats are going to have to vote for things they don't like. 

Rubio did not even wait for the word "tax" to come up. He preempted it with this:

"I think we're going to have to vote for something that solves the problem. Just to say we voted on something for the sake of saying we compromised, that doesn't solve the problem — doesn't make any sense to me. We have to find a solution. And whatever we vote on has to solve things.

"And I think some of the things that people on the left propose when it comes to our economy doesn't solve the problem. For example, I don't have a moral, religious objection to tax increases. I just think they hurt growth and job creation. And that's why I don't think any solution should have tax increases. Not because I'm trying to, because I have some sort of orthodoxy on tax increases. It's because I believe by raising taxes we hurt growth, which is the only way out of this predicament."

Maybe you think that sounds squishy. Rubio could have argued that high taxes are immoral, that it is wrong for government to take by force that which it does not absolutely need, or to punish those who have more simply because they have more. Fair points.

But rather than get into all of that, Rubio focused on "raising taxes," not on "high taxes." And his argument -- that the goal we all share is growth and that raising taxes impedes our progress toward that goal rather than accelerates it -- speaks to independents and moderates in the same language Barack Obama used to win them over four years ago.

Rubio turns the tables on Obama. The President always presents himself as the lone pragmatist in politics. If only everyone else were as willing as he is to put aside ideology and approach our problems pragmatically, why, we could balance that budget tomorrow. Rubio in two paragraphs made Obama into the ideologue and himself into the pragmatist.

Raising taxes is ideological, not practical, because it slows growth, and growth is our shared goal, said Rubio. There was no accepting of Obama's terms -- Wall Street, the rich, the 1 percent, fairness -- this is a debate about balancing the budget and restoring economic growth, and although we must compromise to reach those goals, we would be foolish to try to do so by raising taxes.

It was a terrific performance, delivered effortlessly. Vice-presidential candidate or not, this guy has a real future as a shaper of the conservative message.

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Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.