If Marco Rubio Becomes Vice President of the United States

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Recently Senator Marco Rubio spoke on the record at the Council on Foreign Relations, and his comments of global health and foreign assistance programs were very surprising. Often touted as Mitt Romney’s likely choice for Vice President, the 39-year-old Rubio is a rising superstar in the GOP.

Rubio swept into the U.S. Senate on the 2010 Tea Party wave, and is on most issues a staunch conservative with views that reflect his Cuban heritage. Like many Cuban-Americans of his generation, Rubio’s parents fled Cuba in the 1950s, and supported efforts to topple the Havana government. For half a century Cuban-American politics have been dominated by antipathy towards the Castro government, anti-communism and focused issues that set particularly the Florida-based population apart from mainstream U.S. Latino politics. Overall, they have been inside the Republican fold, typically within its most conservative blocs.

Rubio came out swinging in the 2009 elections, calling for massive reductions in U.S. government spending, shrinkage of the overall size of the government, and elimination of entire departments. Endorsed by conservative stalwarts George Will, Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, Rubio became a favorite of the Tea Party and his defeat of more moderate Republican, and former Florida Governor Charlie Crist was hailed as a key landmark in the Tea Party tidal wave of 2009. Rubio gained a coveted seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he has often joined the Republican chorus decrying President Barack Obama’s military and diplomatic strategies.

But Rubio is part of a generation of Cuban-Americans that differs from its parents both on the fever of their anti-Castro sentiments and on the narrative they create for themselves. For example, though Rubio’s campaign rhetoric throughout his political career has referred to his parents “fleeing Castro” they actually left Cuba two years prior to the revolution. This year Rubio visited Guantanamo, putting his feet on Cuban soil for the first time, and declined press opportunities to call for ouster of Fidel and Raul Castro and the Cuban Communist Party.

In his recent on-the-record appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations Rubio surprised many in attendance with his apparent agreement with much of the Obama foreign policy. And then there was this:

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Senator Rubio, I'm Laurie Garrett. I work here at the council. And your counterpart in the House, Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, runs the Foreign Operations Committee. Like you, she's from Florida. Like you, she's a Cuban-American. Like you, she's a Republican. She went on the record saying that the worst investment America could make would be in global health and foreign assistance programs. And you gave a speech in which you used her language in the exact reverse and said that investment in global health and foreign assistance was one of the best payoffs.

Given your strong belief that the U.S. has a very critical role to play not only in foreign assistance but also, as you're describing today, in military affairs, how do you reconcile the priority your party places on massive budget reduction and cutback on both revenue to government and the size of government, which will have to include a lot of our foreign policy establishment and defense apparatus, with these commitments that you feel are so important and you say is a unique role that only America can play?

RUBIO: Well, first of all -- and I haven't heard Ileana's speech on -- that comment, so I don't want to comment directly on something I don't know the context of or haven't heard. I would just tell you what I stand for.

First of all, on the budget deficit side of it, for us to argue that foreign aid is the reason why the U.S. is running a budget debt (sic) of this -- of -- is -- it would be like someone who went bankrupt saying it's because they bought too much coffee at Starbucks. I mean, it's not -- it's -- if we zeroed out foreign aid, if we zeroed it out, it would make a negligible -- it would be no -- you wouldn't even notice. It's a rounding error in the big picture.

On the other hand, the payback of foreign aid is extraordinary. Two things it gives us. Number one is it gives us influence. Why does anybody in Egypt even care what the U.S. thinks about their future? Well, because they receive foreign aid and military aid. So it's just -- pragmatically speaking, it gives us leverage to influence the way things go in one direction or another. And quite frankly, it's one of the reasons why we haven't been able to walk away from our foreign aid commitment in Pakistan. Despite the fact that it's -- we're really uncomfortable doing it, because if we did that, we'd have no influence over what happens in Pakistan.

The second thing that I would say is that the dividends it pays from a human element are extraordinary, and you need to look no further than Africa, where millions of people are alive because the United States pays for their antiviral medication. What the dividends that that will pay for the next 20, 30, 40 years -- not just because these human beings are going to be alive and productive members in building their country and their societies, and one day become our trading partners, one day become consumers of the stuff that my kids are going to invent and build, but there's also an element to that that involves their view of the United States and their willingness to engage in an effort against us.

You know, why would you join up against an -- why would you join a movement against a country that kept you alive? Now, there's a pragmatic reality to it.

And last but not least, I mean, it speaks to who we are as a people. The notion that we're somehow going to allow people -- we know our country well. We are the most compassionate people in the world. And we may -- we may not like this role. I think sometimes Americans are generally uncomfortable with the idea that we are the ones that go around the world righting wrongs and taking on human rights abuses and feeding people who are hungry. You know, why can't someone else do that?

But ultimately you know we're not -- both in our private charitable giving and what our government does, we're not going to let it happen. We're just not. The U.S. is not going to stand by and watch images of starving kids or people dying and not do something about it. So we might as well do it through a well-organized and systemic way that has our national interest in mind as well. And that's why I support foreign aid and foreign aid programs, because getting rid of it doesn't solve anything, but it creates a host of -- a bunch of problems.

And by the way, I think it speaks volumes of who we are as a people and as a nation. At the end of the day, all over the world, people have been willing to cooperate with American leadership, not because they fear us, not because they're afraid of what we'll do to them, because they know innately that the U.S., although we sometimes in their minds get some things wrong, are a good and noble people who try to make the world better. I think that's an immeasurable thing that we shouldn't ever walk away from as part of our national character.

[End of transcription of Rubio.]

We have yet to hear comments from Presidential candidate Romney on foreign assistance, global health, HIV/AIDS or any specific details addressed above by Rubio. There is no way to know at this time whether Rubio’s expressed views constitute an outlier sentiment or hint at what a Romney Presidency might represent for global health. The fact that Rubio’s perspective appears diametrically opposite of that put forward by fellow-Floridian Ros-Lehtinen demonstrates the fluidity in the Tea Party and conservative GOP point of view(s).

And lest any reader step away from this blog thinking Marco Rubio is a sure-fire friend of global health it is worth recalling why the Tea Party so enthusiastically supported his run for the Senate: Rubio adamantlyopposes any increase in the national debt ceiling. Time will tell whether a bare-fisted budget brawl in the Senate will find Rubio backing sweeping cuts, including those precious funds for global health and foreign assistance.