Before penning “Jaws” – easily the most harrowing sea tale this side of Herman Melville – the late Peter Benchley worked as a speechwriter during Lyndon Johnson’s oft times tumultuous administration.
Legend has it that when it came time to leave Washington, Benchley decided to exit with a little vindictive flair.
Although different today, the Rose Garden was then the presidential setting of choice for informal, mostly non-policy related addresses. So relaxed was the atmosphere during Johnson’s tenure that, when pinched for time, staff writers were known to prepare a few casual remarks, and type them onto note cards to hand to Johnson as he made his way to the venerable setting. The president rarely scanned them for content.
As the story goes, Benchley’s last White House assignment was to draft a light and personal Garden welcome for a group of White House visitors. As was his custom, Johnson did not pause to look at the four cards Benchley had prepared for the occasion. Instead, he placed the cards in his breast pocket and strode to the podium.
After a brief greeting, the president removed the cards and began to read:
Card One: “You have heard it said that we cannot balance the Federal budget and maintain expanded defense expenditures. But, I believe we can, and I’m going to tell you how we can do it.”
Card Two: “You have heard it said that we cannot enforce law and order in the streets and at the same time guarantee individual rights. But, I believe we can, and I’m going to tell you how we can do it.”
Card Three: “You have heard it said that we cannot fight a war abroad and continue the war on poverty. But, I believe we can, and I’m going to tell you how we can do it.”
His predicament now fully apparent, Johnson went silent as he shakily turned to the last card. It read: “So long, Lyndon. You’re on your own, now. Signed, Peter Benchley.”
Promising the Moon
True, apocryphal, or somewhere in between, the story of a politician hung out to dry for making careless promises evokes a certain rank-and-file satisfaction in this era of sleight-of-hand elections. The notion of a hoodwinked officeholder caught promising the moon is a balm for the Ninety-Nine Percent, whose voices have been steadily muted by corporate personhood and favors-for-votes political campaigns.
Promising the political moon to regular folk is hardly a new phenomenon in the history of American elections. (Perhaps the best example came in 1927, when, on the eve of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover famously promised “a chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage” – all the while fueling the growing storm of economic disaster with pro-haves fiduciary policies.)
But historical inertia should not blind us to what happens when being all things to all people becomes the go-to strategy for winning and maintaining high office: Solid incumbents lose reelections for having the moral moxie to vote their conscience rather than legislate to the tepid middle; desperately needed talent is siphoned to the private sphere as principled Gen Xers and millennials shun, en masse, ethically compromised political structures; and milquetoast candidates, unwilling to speak truth to power, create the kind of chronic leadership vacuum prized by politically-minded billionaires and other opportunistic elitists.
Indeed, while empty promises remain the stock and trade of the nation’s elections, they are nonetheless costly.
Marco Rubio: Promising a Reform Conservatism Moon?
The smattering of recent tea party primary victories (best evidenced by former House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor’s stunning 11-point beat down) notwithstanding, there are indications yet another twist on being all things to all people is in the works – this one from the Republican side of the isle.
Given the past few decades during which unyielding, trickle-up, fiscal theory has brought about the sharp spike in wealth inequality, one should give serious pause before using reform and conservatism in the same sentence. Millions have been adversely affected by class wars they have little chance of winning. Influential conservative economists should be held to account, even if only in our collective memory.
But things may be changing as Boomer-era Republican legislators reluctantly, if unavoidably, surrender to the next generation the reins of power and economic practices.
If these GOP whippersnappers’ reform conservatism is for real, there can be no better example than the curious case of 43-year-old Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and his newfound passion for what’s left of the American middle class.
Rubio is a complex cat, starting with family and religion. The son of religious, patriotic Cuban immigrants that parlayed their bootstrap work ethic into an only-in-America, Obama-like success story; Rubio identifies as an uber-patriotic, onetime Mormon/Baptist, who has since returned to the Catholicism of his youth.
Further reinforcing his self-styled status as a postmodern, 21st-Century Republican maverick, he’s a reconstructed Ted Kennedy devotee, likewise known to imbibe to excess and spend more money than he should.
And, as described in the senator-cum-president’s 2012 memoirs, the usually hard-right Rubio was moved to tears at the election of the country’s first president of color:
“I was so proud to be an American, and so moved by the powerful symbolism of the moment, I couldn’t stop myself from tearing up. … [Some] thought they were tears of regret for the election of a Democratic president. But they weren’t. There would be plenty of time to oppose the new president’s misguided policies. That night was a night to be proud of our country.”
While Rubio’s spiritual and political pivots are a humanizing breath of fresh air for mostly younger, ideologically- fatigued Republicans, party purists still yearning for golden-age conservatism are aghast at the growing crop of neo-bipartisans: To his political tribal elders in D.C., Marco Rubio is prima fascia evidence of their party’s mission creep, and a new Republican normal they will resist with great zeal.
Jumping the Shark?
Thus far, Rubio seems unfazed at the resistance from his GOP mentors – at least on the third-rail issues of immigration and what to do about the battered middle class. In a self-billed “major address” given last week before a conservative Hillsdale College crowd, he put forth ideas suspiciously akin to Democratic proposals.
If Rubio’s strategy is to write off the most conservative of conservatives in order to engage independents and the two parties’ political centers, the Hillsdale speech – despite its blatant, style-point agenda – hit the mark.
In between concrete ideas on poverty (let the states address it); jobs (better underwrite technological education); student loans (borrow from private lenders and repay them with reductions from future wages); and Social Security (provide tax breaks for those who delay retirement), were loquacious, grassroots appeals sure to get the attention of the budding reform wing of his party.
But, by promising a neo-conservative, neo-populist moon, have Rubio and his handlers jumped the shark? Have they fairly invited exposure to some inconvenient inconsistencies between what the senator says and does when it comes to the middle class?
The answer is a clear yes. Since entering the Senate in 2011, Rubio has opposed legislation to:
- Raise the minimum wage;
- Extend unemployment benefits;
- Provide emergency student loan refinancing;
- Retain income tax credits for single parents;
- Bolster legal options for undercompensated women workers.
Even here in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott and perennial candidate, Charlie Crist, are in a titanic gubernatorial race to their own empty-promise bottom, Rubio’s words versus deeds ratio is a stunner with the potential for longer-term exploitation.
Time will tell if Marco Rubio’s ephiphanic discovery of the working class will be helpful or harmful in the piranha fest otherwise known as the 2016 Republican primary. His party is in serious reboot mode; but that doesn’t mean either he or his party is ready to risk the ire of the elitist interests underwriting today’s American conservatism.
What we do know is the fine art of promising the moon to regular folk is alive and well.
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