Review

Republican write-off: Rubio and Huckabee serve 'Dreams' and 'Gravy'

Marco Rubio lays out his ideas, if he decides to run in 2016, in 'American Dreams'

Little noticed amid the will-they-or-won't-they speculation over who will run for the 2016 Republican nomination, leading figures in both parties now agree to a surprising extent about what economic problem will top the next president's agenda. Whether either side can come up with a convincing solution remains to be seen.

Marco Rubio's description of the problem sounds a lot like the way Hillary Rodham Clinton or even Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts would put it:

"Something structural has shifted" in the U.S. economy, Rubio writes in his new book, "American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone." "For most Americans, wages are stagnant. Old jobs have been outsourced or automated …. Middle-class families are living paycheck to paycheck, juggling bill payments to stay one step ahead of debt collection agencies." And, he adds, "the blame for this failure belongs to both parties in Washington, D.C."

The bipartisan — although by no-means unanimous — agreement that wage stagnation has become America's paramount economic problem draws on powerful evidence. An American family whose income lies at the middle of the scale made less in 2014 than in 2000 when inflation is considered. Although the overall economy has grown, the lion's share has gone to those at the top of the pyramid.

The persistence of the problem through the presidencies of Democrats and Republicans alike mocks any plan that proposes to just pursue previous policies with more vigor. And so both sides have cast about for new — or at least new-seeming — ideas.

That search fits well with Rubio, the youthful, energetic conservative who has been the subject of presidential speculation almost since the moment he won a Florida Senate seat in 2010. At age 43, he would very much like to present himself as a fresh alternative to a more senior generation of Republicans that includes Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.

His book seems aimed at bolstering his claim, if he decides to run, that he is the new ideas candidate of the 2016 Republican field. Borrowing heavily from white papers produced by "conservative reform" intellectuals who include Yuval Levin, Peter Wehner and Reihan Salam, the book consists of a series of policy proposals leavened by anecdotes about people Rubio has met in his career and tales of his family history, which readers of his previous book, a memoir, will find familiar.

Several of Rubio's ideas have potential for bipartisan support. Expanding wage supplements for low-income workers through the tax system, for example, broadly resembles an idea that President Obama outlined in last year's budget, although Democrats would object to Rubio's plan to pay for it by cutting benefits elsewhere.

Similarly, Rubio's support for legalizing many of the millions of immigrantsin the U.S. illegally leaves him much closer to the White House than to the rejectionist majority in the House Republican caucus, even though he now says reform must be accomplished through three separate bills rather than all at once.

Other ideas, such as a "regulatory budget" to limit new rules, increasing the Social Security retirement age or revamping Medicare with a voucher system, hew closely to conservative orthodoxy and have been denounced by Democrats for years.

What none of the ideas do is add up to a plan that clearly seems capable of overcoming powerful trends that have held down wages — globalization, technological change, the decline of unions, a waning of the U.S. edge in education. If tax cuts and restrictions on government regulations were the answer, 20 years of Republican presidencies under Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes presumably would have solved the problem long ago.

Still, Rubio has crafted an appeal aimed directly at the concerns of voters at the center of the U.S. electorate.

The same cannot be said for Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Fox TV commentator. His new book, "God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy," could easily be subtitled "My side's better than yours."

Unlike Rubio, Huckabee preaches only to the choir — the Southern, white, churchgoing conservatives who inhabit what he labels "Bubba-ville." The book feeds their sense of grievance that they are looked down upon by the residents of Los Angeles, New York and Washington ("Bubble-ville") even as it stokes feeling of moral superiority.

Although a charitable and generous man in much of his career, Huckabee has written a somewhat mean-spirited book.

Those who enjoy watching the back-and-forth on cable television will find the style familiar and some of the one-liners too.

Commenting on Beyoncé's appearance with her husband, Jay Z, at the 2013 Grammys, for example, he has this to say: "Jay Z is a very shrewd businessman, but I wonder: Does it occur to him that he is arguably crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?"

"Liberals," he writes, hypocritically allow "such hateful and exploitative treatment of women" to go unchallenged "when it's performed by 'cool' people like Jay Z and Beyoncé." But, he adds, "they're contributing to a culture that is abrasive, rude, obnoxious and just plain mean," one that "is not that far a journey to believing that some people are not fully human, that they're disposable and expendable."

That's "the same root evil that created slavery, genocide, 'honor killings' and the Holocaust," he says.

From Beyoncé to the Holocaust in under two pages. That takes some skill. Whether it's a skill voters look for in a president is questionable.

And, speaking of "contributing to a culture that is abrasive, rude, obnoxious and just plain mean," consider the title Huckabee gives the chapter in which he denounces the Transportation Security Administration and the National Security Agency for infringing on American freedoms: "Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!" Apparently, he finds references to anal rape amusing or at least suitable as an attention-getting metaphor for submission to authority.

Campaign books don't necessarily say much about how a politician would govern, but they do tell a lot about how author/candidates hope to be perceived by voters.

Rubio clearly hopes to balance his relative inexperience — less than one full term in the Senate, much like Obama — with a heavy emphasis on ideas. And while remaining true to his conservative roots, he has embraced some proposals that could allow him to reach beyond the Republican base.

Huckabee, by contrast, seems content to rally his core supporters. It's a strategy that could, perhaps, win an early primary or two — particularly with a crowded field — but that ultimately seems aimed more at increased notoriety than ultimate victory.

david.lauter@latimes.com

American Dreams
Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone

Marco Rubio
Sentinel: 204 pp., $27.95

God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy

Mike Huckabee
St. Martin's Press: 258 pp., $26.99

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