As the media’s infatuation moved on to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, he began the painstaking work of trying to recast himself as a policy wonk. On March 10 he appeared at Google’s (GOOG) offices in Washington, D.C., to deliver an address loftily titled “Sparking Dynamic Growth in 21st Century America.” “The world around us is changing quickly, and we have waited for far too long to change with it,” Rubio told the audience. “We still have time to build the new American Century. But we do not have forever.”
What distinguished his speech from politicians’ standard paeans to American entrepreneurialism was the specificity of his prescriptions: auctioning off 200 megahertz of government wireless spectrum to corporations; constructing an interstate energy pipeline system; promoting cooperation between the private sector and NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense to commercialize public research; thwarting United Nations efforts to regulate the Internet through legislation he’ll soon introduce. “Do I think Republicans have done enough [to promote economic growth]?” he said in an interview afterward. “No. I think we’re lagging—except in comparison to Democrats.”
The Google speech was the latest in a series of sober, policy-themed events that Rubio’s staff has orchestrated to burnish his image and broaden the public’s perception of him. In January, to mark the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, he delivered a speech in which he proposed consolidating dozens of federal antipoverty programs within a single agency that would disburse money to states. Liberals point out that this is a shopworn conservative approach to almost any federal program. But Rubio has also talked up cutting-edge policies such as federal wage subsidies for the working poor and is working with conservative scholars including Michael Strain at the American Enterprise Institute to write legislation.
Last month, Rubio rolled out a series of higher-education reforms aimed at broadening access and limiting costs. These include accreditation for free online college courses and other nontraditional forms of learning, as well as a proposal that would allow private investors to pay students’ tuition in exchange for a portion of their future income.