Rubio's "Common Destiny" speech at Reagan Library redefines conservatism for his generation

Earlier this week,  Senator Marco Rubio spoke at the Reagan Library at the invitation of Nancy Reagan. While most reports of the event have focused on Rubio’s great catch as Mrs. Reagan lost her footing and nearly hit the floor, the evening’s truly exceptional event was Rubio’s speech.   While Rubio was paying tribute to Reagan and his ideals, it was nearly impossible not to make comparisons.  Rubio and Reagan possess the same charisma, idealism, and absolute belief in American exceptionalism.

Rubio shared that he grew up as a child of the Reagan era:

“I tell people all the time that I was born and raised in Ronald Reagan’s America. I was raised in Ronald Reagan’s America. He was elected when I was in fourth grade and he left … he left office when I was in high school. Those are very important years, fourth grade through high school, they were the years that formed so much of what today what I believe and know to be true about the world and about our nation.”

In explaining the proper role of government:

“[The vast majority of Americans] want it to be free and prosperous, a place where your economic hopes and dreams can be accomplished and brought up to fruition. That through hard work and sacrifice you can be who God meant you to be. No matter who your parents were, no matter where you were born, no matter how much misfortune you may have met in your life, if you have a good idea, you can be anything if you work hard and play by the rules…But they also want us to be a compassionate America, a place where people are not left behind…

“So, we are a nation that aspires to two things – prosperity and compassion. And Ronald Reagan understood that. Perhaps better, again, than any voice I’ve ever heard speak on it.”

Then Rubio turned a corner and drew a line between true conservatism and the so-called “compassionate conservatism” of the post-Reagan 1990’s:

“Both Republicans and Democrats established a role for government in America that said, yes, we’ll have a free economy, but we will also have a strong government, who through regulations and taxes will control the free economy and through a series of government programs, will take care of those in our society who are falling behind.

“That was a vision crafted in the twentieth century by our leaders and though it was well intentioned, it was doomed to fail from the start. It was doomed to fail from the start first and foremost because it forgot that the strength of our nation begins with its people and that these programs actually weakened us as a people.”

He’s right, of course.  The post-Reagan Republican party of the 90’s morphed itself into something nearly unrecognizable with its addiction to pork barrel spending, entitlements and soaring deficits (Reagan and Republicans of his era were not immune to excessive government spending, programs, and deficits, of course, but it would have been rather rude for Rubio to point this out at an event honoring Reagan).

But Sen. Rubio doesn’t just call for a return to Reagan’s conservatism.  While he lauded Reagan at every turn, Rubio advanced the idea that his generation must not only take up the mantle of traditional conservatism, but in addition, must be willing to sacrifice for the survival of the United States:

“These changes will not be easy… It will actually really call upon a specific generation of Americans, those of us, like myself, decades away from retirement, to assume certain realities -– that we will continue to pay into and fund for a system that we will never fully access -– that we are prepared to do whatever it takes in our lives and in our generation so that our parents and grandparents can enjoy the fruits of their labor and so that our children and our grandchildren can inherit the fullness of America’s promise.

“But you see, every generation of Americans has been called to do their part to ensure that the American promise continues. We’re not alone; we’re not unique; we’re not the only ones. In fact, I would argue to you that we have it pretty good.

“And yet I think it’s fully appropriate that those of us raised in Ronald Reagan’s America are actually the ones who are being asked to stand up and respond to the issues of the day. For we, perhaps better than any other people who have ever lived in this nation, should understand how special and unique America truly is.”

It’s a powerful charge to his generation.  It’s the truth Americans need to hear and Mitt Romney, who will begin collecting Social Security and Medicare next year, cannot say this with a fraction of the credibility that Gen X member Rubio possesses. Rhetorically linking the challenge of entitlement reform to the Greatest Generation’s sacrifice in WWII or the previous generation’s Cold War against Communism demonstrates the seriousness of the looming financial crisis and the future austerity staring Rubio’s generation in the face.

Rubio finished with a Reaganesque story about his Cuban grandfather who rolled cigars and read classic literature and American history:

“My grandfather didn’t know America was exceptional because he read about it in a book. He knew about it because he lived it and saw it with his eyes. That powerful lesson is the story of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It’s our legacy as a people. And it’s who we have a chance to be again. And I think that’s important for all of us because being an American is not just a blessing, it’s a responsibility.

“As we were commanded to do long ago, “Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

“Well, as we gather here today in this place, that pays homage and tribute to the greatest American of the twentieth century, we are reminded that for him and for our nation, being a light to the world, that’s not just our common history, it remains our common destiny. “

I listened to this and was instantly transported back to the days of big hair, leggings, and shoulder pads (OK, so while we had Reagan and the evil Soviet empire met its demise, not everything was great in the 80’s).

Meanwhile, back in 2011, the Republicans are dithering around with the likes of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

I’ve heard all the arguments about why Marco Rubio should not run for president. He has no executive experience. He should spend more time in the Senate to hone his skills. He’s too young…Obama redux.

During his Reagan speech, Rubio quipped, “I have no interest in serving as vice president to anyone who could possibly live all eight years of the presidency.”

While it was a cute and clever line, consider what happens to a senator who spends ten years in that place.  The odds are almost insurmountably against him getting out with his conservative values intact. After two  terms, most senators have spent so much time compromising, bringing home the bacon, and pandering to special interests that they are rendered completely unsuitable to occupy the office of the President of the United States.  Consider the most recent failed presidential candidates: Senators John McCain, John Kerry, Bob Dole – all have spent more time in the Senate than most Supreme Court justices with lifetime appointments serve.   All would have surely continued the big government policies of the 90’s.

Will we even recognize Marco Rubio in eight years?  Would Reagan have been Reagan if he had spent ten years in Congress?  Of course, we can’t know the answers to those questions, but we do know that we like the current iteration of Marco Rubio.  He gets it – and more important – like Reagan, he can communicate it in a way that inspires and uplifts without sounding like an extremist.  Can we afford to walk away from that?