Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday entered the ranks of Republican lawmakers who are trying to convince the public that the GOP cares about the poor.
Rubio’s speech at the U.S. Capitol is part of a counteroffensive against President Obama and Democrats, who are looking to paint the GOP as the party of the rich ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.
But as Rubio and other Republicans roll out proposals they say will help the poor, they’ll be forced to reckon with party actions that appear to run contrary to that goal, such as voting against federal unemployment benefits and backing deep cuts to food stamps.
In his speech marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Rubio argued that government programs like welfare and unemployment benefits have failed in helping the poor improve their economic standing.
Instead, Rubio would make the states primarily responsible for developing anti-poverty programs. Washington is “incapable of delivering” effective solutions, he said.
“What I am proposing today is the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages income mobility since President Johnson first conceived of the War on Poverty 50 years ago,” he said. “I am proposing that we turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs – and the trillions spent on them – over to the states.”
In Rubio’s vision, states would have more freedom than bureaucracy-bound Washington to create programs that, for example, would make job training courses required for recipients of unemployment benefits.
Economic inequality “will not be solved by continuing with the same stale Washington ideas,” Rubio said.
The tactic was a successful one for Democrats in 2012, and it could hurt Republicans again. Democrats held a 28-point advantage over Republicans when asked which party shows more compassion and concern for people in a December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (the same poll showed Republicans with a 10-point advantage on the economy as a whole).
However, Rubio’s focus on the states may have inadvertently showed how divided Republicans are on dealing with poverty on the federal level.
In recent months, Republican lawmakers have pressed for significant cuts to food assistance benefits. Republicans voted to slash a whopping $40 billion in food aid in a farm bill that passed the House last year.
On Monday, Rubio joined all but six moderate GOP senators who voted against a bill that would have extended a program that provided aid to the long-term unemployed. Republicans are dead set against renewing the program unless cuts are made elsewhere. And many Republican governors have balked at expanding Medicaid health coverage.
And Rubio previewed a future fight between the GOP and Democrats on raising the federal minimum wage up from $7.25 per hour.
"Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream," he said.
That attitude has made Democrats optimistic that they can box in Republicans on economic battles.
“Republican leaders set out to make their party more appealing – or at least less insulting – to middle-class and working Americans,” Eddie Vale, an adviser to the liberal American Bridge super PAC, wrote in an email to reporters on Wednesday. “Until Rubio and the Republicans come up with any actual ideas beyond their endless calls for more tax cuts and repealing Obamacare, the real war on poverty in America remains their endless attacks on the middle and working class.”
He proposed more “free enterprise”-based solutions, like replacing the earned income tax credit with a wage enhancement for low-paid workers and reforms that would make it easier for workers to take certified job training courses.
But the challenge for Republicans is to prove that their ideas go beyond mere rhetoric and aren’t just a cover to peel back the country’s social safety net. Rubio argues that the onus is actually on Democrats.
“For fifty years now, we have tried big government,” Rubio said. “Yet too many people remain trapped in despair. Now, we must try a new way.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.