Marco Rubio makes the case for middle class populism at RPOF quarterly meeting

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In a speech that virtually screamed of presidential ambition, Marco Rubio said today that while he is not anti-Wall Street, it’s time for the GOP to become the party for a struggling middle class who now believe that the American dream is something that may no longer be attainable.

“They feel this way because despite the fact that they’re doing everything they used to do,” he said. “They are working hard, they haven’t had a raise in years, and yet everything costs more.”

Speaking at the Republican Party of Florida’s Winter meeting in Tampa, the 43-year-old U.S. Senator gave a 15-minute speech that attempted to go where some conservatives feel the party has needed to go for years – addressing the growing economic inequality gap in the U.S. that continues to widen.

Rubio acknowledged globalization and enhanced technology as being forces that are contributing to “this middle-class crunch.” He referred to the frustration that parents with children aspiring to attend college now feel, caught between making too much money to qualify for financial aide, but not enough to afford those tuition costs themselves. And he said our economic order was changing dramatically, and it was time everyone noticed it.

“Do you realize that close to half the jobs that exist in the American economy today won’t exist 20 years from now,” he told the Florida Republicans, which included Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Senator Tom Lee in the audience. He then mentioned specifically how a salesperson at a drive-through at McDonalds won’t be taking their orders in the future. “Because in about 5-6 years there’s going to be a touch-screen there, and not a person taking that order.”

He then lambasted what he called “an old and tired higher education system,” that “stigmatizes vocational training in education.”

“My point is, all of these things are conspiring against the middle class,” he continued, adding that it’s now the chance of Republicans to reverse this tide, to offer the country an agenda that will restore the American dream. He bashed “radical environmentalists who have made millions of dollars on fossil fuels” as being mortal threats to Americans well being (an obvious reference to San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, who spent $74 million on this year’s election going after candidates who questioned that climate change is man-made), saying that while they can afford to pay another $300-$400 a month in electric bills if certain policies were enacted, “But a single mom? Trying to raise two kids on her on own? A $50 increase in her electric bill could wipe her out.”

And then putting on a little Elizabeth Warren spin, Rubio went on a a bit of anti-Wall Street screed, saying that “If she runs for President, no candidate in American history will have more support in the boardrooms than Hillary Clinton. That’s a fact! And yet the average voter doesn’t believe that. I’m not anti-Wall Street. It has a place in our society, but what we should be fighting for is Main Street … the people who are trying to get ahead. The people who have millions of dollars in their bank accounts, we just need to treat them fairly. They can take care of themselves. But the person trying to start a business out of a spare bedroom in their home? They’re the ones that need the lowest tax rates. They’re the ones who need regulations to be under control. They’re the ones who need us to bring the national debt under control. They’re the ones that need help.”

Interspersed between his comments about the plight of the struggling masses, Rubio reverted to discussing how the members of the audience, as prominent Florida Republicans, were crucial to winning the 2016 election – though he never mentioned himself or anyone else as personally needing that help. He called out these “foot soldiers,” saying it was up to lawmakers like himself to draw up the agenda that Republicans can be proud of, so that the grass-roots activists and can then take it and outwork the Democrats and their vaunted ground game in 2016, “because you can’t win a 21st century campaign with a 20th century system.”

He said the party did a great job of organizing in the 2014 election cycle, but it was no time to rest on their laurels. “Now we’re going to have to improve that, because what these other guys have put together is real, and it’s impressive, and we have to match it.”

Now that hardly seems like the words from a man who is only thinking about running for re-election to the Senate in 2016. Does it?

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at