Marco Rubio Faces the Nation: Not Ready for Prime Time

Marco Rubio has been in the US Senate nearly nine months. After a nine month gestation, last Sunday the junior senator from Florida emerged as tidy proof on “Face the Nation’.

Face The Nation host Bob Schaeffer led off with a question about the GOP stance on raising the debt ceiling. Rubio returned with spin: it is a problem of spending, not the debt ceiling. Spending cuts, spending cuts, spending cuts. Even rating agencies like Standard & Poors say so. Schaeffer asked the senator’s view of a compromise deal to allow the president to increase the debt ceiling without action by either party. Rubio stuck to his point: “it’s not about the debt ceiling, it’s about debt.”

Rubio used the phrase “credible solution” to the debt problem several times, including the rating agency’s emphasis on a credible solution in its recent report. When Schaeffer tried, twice– including a Rubio clip from a Fox News interview– to get the junior senator to acknowledge that not everything in the economy is President Obama’s fault, Rubio pushed back.

“People want to know when they will have a job. Until America has a credible solution to its debt problem, people will be afraid to invest in America.” Here, Schaeffer could have asked: name one investor who wouldn’t create a job in the US because of the national debt.

Businesses aren’t investing in jobs, because there is little demand. Consumers are sucking on fumes of hope, having been conned into serial asset bubbles that stripped and transferred trillions of net worth with no accountability. The first, in dot.com stocks. The second, in housing and mortgages. Marco Rubio should certainly have something to say about the failure to diversify Florida’s economy; the state now suffering in the worst throes of the crash. Rubio, after all, was a top Jeb Bush consigliere during the housing boom years when regulatory barriers were under attack in Florida, pointing the ship of state in the direction of wrecking on the reef.

As the interviewed moved into the final set piece, Rubio offered his solution to the economic crisis: “one, a decrease in spending, of 4 trillion and two, growth enhancement.” Snap.

“Growth enhancement”? Somewhere, a GOP funded focus group, observed behind a one way mirror in a sterile conference room in one of a million suburban office parks, was surveyed on that little nugget; recorded for later playback and review by message makers and pollsters. “Growth enhancement” is the trick shot to least scrutinized area of the GOP playbook, “regulatory reform”.

It is on this point that audiences, including TV talking heads, could benefit from placing Rubio in context of his political history in Miami. Rubio is scarcely 40 years old, a telegenic politician from West Miami. He didn’t grow up in the haze of Vietnam or the trauma of Watergate. He was 10 years old when the first salvos were fired in the domestic war against the environment; linking conservatives from the American West with Big Sugar farmers in Florida in a national movement to block regulations. Until this 40 Year War on the Environment is laid out for the public, there will be no way for voters to assess what role their elected officials played in its drama. Marco Rubio is a first example.

Rubio cut his political teeth in a small Hispanic municipality where local zoning and development decisions were the bread and butter of local government. As a young law school student and intern for Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen, Rubio pushed up through the Hispanic politics of growth.

Before he was thirty, he had risen to prominence in the Dade delegation to the Florida legislature and proved adept at marshalling majorities in service of the Jeb Bush “growth-at-any-cost” agenda, cultivating deep relationships with GOP campaign funders who relied on the services of government to turn speculative land investments into platted subdivisions. They used language and methodology devised from the highest level of the GOP: free market fundamentalism and conviction that self-interest achieves social progress more efficiently and better than government regulation. George Bush might have been president, but Florida was the test tube, the incubator for policies hatched by conservative think tanks and their leading lights, like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist.

The best example is the Growth Machine’s animus against environmental regulations protecting wetlands. In Florida, as shown through the outstanding investigative journalism of the St. Pete Times, during a period of federal policy (initiated by the first President Bush) of “no net loss” of wetlands, Florida lost 84,000 acres under the eyes of federal guardians: the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US EPA.

Now, the American public is still waiting for the moment the mainstream media will probe aspiring public officials along this line of inquiry, and the moment couldn’t happen soon enough. The meaning of the coded text is “growth enhancements”: the real target of the GOP is not “Obamacare” or even “debt”– it is environmental regulations that “kill jobs”.

It is a cherished goal of the GOP, today, even in the heat of the battle on the deficit, debt ceiling and raising taxes: eviscerating the regulatory capacity of a single agency that accounts for approximately .3 percent of monthly federal spending: the US EPA. Co-writer of “Paving Paradise”, Craig Pittman wrote last week, “In a historic vote late Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to yank the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority over the state’s out of the Clean Water Act. The vote was 239-184, mostly along party lines, although 16 Democrats crossed party lines to support the bill while 13 Republicans voted against it. The bill, co-sponsored by Florida’s own U.S. Rep. John Mica, is part of a broader Republican assault on environmental regulations and the EPA — aka the “Job-Killer.” The bill contains a lot of “thou-shalt-nots” for the EPA. It says the EPA shalt not issue new water-quality standards for a pollutant if the EPA has already approved a state water-quality standard for the pollutant, unless the state agrees with the EPA — a swipe at the EPA’s attempt to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Florida, even though it is only doing so as a result of settling a lawsuit with environmental groups in 2009.”

In response, a coalition of environmental groups– with whom Marco Rubio has scarcely had contact– implored the EPA to press forward, “On June 7, 2011, Lee County issued a health advisory warning the public to be cautious before “exposing themselves, pets, or livestock to the Caloosahatchee River for at least week.” The prohibition was due to the presence of a virulent strain of blue green algae in the river, a waterway that supports billions of dollars of real estate values downstream. The groups continue, “Without enforcement of nutrient standards to prevent such outbreaks in the future, the Caloosahatchee River and other water bodies throughout Florida may continue to experience algal outbreaks that deter residents and visitors from spending tourism dollars on maritime recreation.”

It is a screwball concept, that what is holding back the creation of jobs in America are regulations protecting the nation’s air and water. Florida is particular proof: what state trashes its natural resources that depends so heavily on tourism and natural attractions now that its markets for housing have collapsed? Those aren’t “job killing” regulations enforced by the EPA on water quality. Those are regulations that protect billions of dollars of equity; waterfront property and communities that depend on commercial fishing and Florida largest industry.

Rubio, emergent star in the right-wing firmament, simply glided by the point that his party’s obsession with “regulatory reforms” is destroying the economic underpinning of Florida, except for the perks and prerogatives of big GOP campaign contributors from oil, coal and mineral extraction industries, or, for the Florida homebuilders who comprise Marco Rubio’s base in Florida. Now this may be a little more than Bob Schaeffer’s briefing book could contain, but it is still important for the next round.

To be fair, the Democrats had their own prospect in the late 1990’s: a similarly telegenic Cuban American prodigal son– Alex Penelas– who as mayor of Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most politically influential, was being groomed for a national role until he disappeared during the 2000 presidential recount and forever doomed his political future. Penelas abandoned his post during the aborted recount in Miami-Dade in a fit of pique against Gore and Clinton for failing to deliver the massive project he had promised his campaign contributors (a closed military base on the edge of Everglades National Park he planned to be the resupply route to a post-Castro Cuba): a recount halted by GOP staffers and operatives flown in from DC Congressional offices helping to deliver two terms of George W. Bush as president of the United States. Some are now active in organizations funding Tea Party initiatives, like FreedomWorks and its chairman, Dick Armey, an early supporter of Marco Rubio. Rubio trained in the same playing courts as Penelas: they are cut from the same cloth which is to say, they fit in where needed.

In Florida, the Republican machinery organized to extract billions of private profit from plowing subdivisions into wetlands and the Everglades is using the economic emergency to strike while the iron is hot and while the Tea Party can agitate for ideological purity. Under the nation’s least popular governor, Rick Scott, the Florida legislature recently knee-capped forty years of growth management, eviscerating state authority in favor of the base: small communities and city commissions where the focus of energy on insider deal-making related to construction and development deformed the purposes of democracy. So if federal regulatory authority is gutted at the same time that state regulatory agencies have been killed off: what next?

These questions virtually erupt from a phrase like “growth enhancements”. To a star like Rubio, it doesn’t matter that the entire US economy has been impaled on the spike of housing and mortgages sold under the rubric of “what the market wants”. It doesn’t matter because the vast Great Recession (or, Long Emergency) has the left reeling and the right, intact and waiting for The Restoration of The Ownership Society. They are whipping up a frenzy against federal regulations protecting people, public health, and the environment at virtually the same time they have used state legislatures to achieve the same purpose. What they hunger for, is the release from regulations that they imagine in feverish and paranoid delusions will restore market demand for their chipboard housing. The doors of the granary have been thrown open. We will be left– thanks to talented GOP leaders like Marco Rubio who really do make Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman look like crazed ignoramuses– with lowest cost denominators prevailing in every county and municipality where corporations can write a campaign check.

Rubio ends his Face The Nation encounter with a sliding stop. In response to Schaeffer’s question, Rubio says, “The (Democrats) revenue proposals “kill jobs”. They use money to grow the government. If you talk to job creators they will tell you what they are looking for a fair simpler tax code and they are looking for some regulatory reform because … when Communist China is a better place to do business than America you know you are in trouble.”

But isn’t Communist China also the place that supplies the cheap drywall to major homebuilders like Lennar, based in Miami, that poisoned thousands of American dreams? In a democracy we are supposed to have protections of property value and public health; these are all benefits that adequate regulations provide in order to level the playing field. But the radical right doesn’t want a level playing field.

Later I was curious whether Rubio accurately represented the focus of Standard & Poors’ report on the need to reduce deficit spending. The senator caught Schaeffer off guard, “I’ve read the full report.” But I’ve seen a lot of tennis players call a ball out when it clearly struck inside the line.

And here is what I found: the report assumes as its baseline, “…a post-2012 phaseout of the December 2010 extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.” That is to say, eliminating the Bush tax cuts.

Senator Marco Rubio might have come from a modest house rental in Tallahassee he shared with now Congressman David Rivera, he might have zero net worth and never created a single job his entire professional life, but he is in exalted company now. Florida’s junior senator can match himself to low-brow, Tea Party theatrics and high-brow GOP strategists. He is mentored by Jeb Bush. Rubio is a contender. He did right well to get out of the CBS studio with nary a bead of sweat showing. Count on it: for Marco Rubio, there will be a next time to face the nation.

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