Marco Rubio's House Divided Speech
The freshman senator from Florida once again has spoken a deep truth with elegance and clarity.
In Costa Rica there are two rivers that meet near a highway bridge -- one called the Río Sucio (dirty river) the other, the Río Claro (clear river). From the bridge one can observe that the mucky brown water and the clean water remain separate as they flow side-by-side.
After a certain distance the two rivers, which appear to effortlessly coexist, suddenly converge and become one color. Though it temporarily seems possible for them to remain separate, it is inevitable that the two distinct, recognizable rivers combine to create one indistinguishable flow.
Some political phenomena are the same way. U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln asserted in his now-famous "House Divided" speech that the United States could not "endure, permanently, half slave and half free." Lincoln believed that the forces behind abolition and those pushing for the expansion of slavery were too powerful and too dynamic to be confined by state borders or latitudinal lines.
While we take Lincoln's words for granted today, the prevailing wisdom for generations had been that the states could remain divided over the slave question. The Missouri Compromise, Dred Scott decision, and Kansas-Nebraska Act were attempts to keep the murky and clear waters flowing separately. Even Lincoln's Democratic opponent in 1860, Stephen Douglas, believed the "Union [could] exist forever divided into free and slave states."
Lincoln knew better. He realized the efforts made to maintain a half-slave, half-free country did not achieve neutrality, but rather one side was gaining advantage over the other. Eventually the waters would have to combine.
Senator Marco Rubio made an analogous assertion on Senate floor just after that body had voted to raise the debt ceiling. Rubio, who had given several powerful speeches throughout the debate, had saved his most profound sentiments for last.
He painted a picture of two Americas. One of a powerful, effectively limitless welfare state where the government acts as guarantor of prosperity and driver of the economy. The other of an America where government is a protector of rights and thereby allows the opportunity-seeking citizenry to create prosperity and drive the economy.
These visions have wrestled for control for roughly 80 years. Despite efforts to stop it, from the time of the New Deal until today America has steadily marched from government of rights to a government of guarantees (with brief slowdowns during the Reagan presidency and the early part of the Gingrich Congress). The recent acceleration toward a "government of guarantees" is why the Tea Party exists. The Tea Party is a national reawakening to the fact that America can become "all one thing," or unfortunately "all the other."
In our modern politics it is stylish to suggest that both visions can coexist indefinitely. Most notably, President Obama rose to power on the platitudinal idea of "red" and "blue" state unity. Rubio resists this notion.
These are two very different version of America and two very different types of solutions. And ultimately we may find that between these two points, there may not be a middle ground. And that in fact as a nation and as a people we must decide what we want the role of government to be in America.
Like Lincoln, Rubio recognizes the incompatibility of the competing visions of government.
That incompatibility is why, for the so many conservatives, the Boehner plan and the final debt ceiling bill were unacceptable. Though advanced as a middle ground by the media and political classes, neither deal made a discernible change to our current course. Both deals left the scope of government unchanged and, at best, postponed insolvency by a few days (literally).
The few House Republicans who opposed the Boehner plan had one thing in common: each recognized the line between the two visions of government. As a nation we would either continue on our present path toward bankruptcy (at some variation of velocity) or we would not.
Once that line became clear, the Jim Jordan* and Tim Huelscamps of Congress were unfazed by pressure to deliver Speaker Boehner a "win" because they did not chase party approval. The cadre of accusatory cable news hosts didn't matter because the goal was not to curry media favor. Those few Tea Party conservatives had chosen which America they wanted and would not throw their support behind the opposing vision.
Unfortunately, too few of our elected representatives stood with the 22 Boehner-plan no-votes. Some believed that the political fallout would be too damaging. Others buckled under other pressures. Still others appear not to see the inevitable -- that the waters cannot run endlessly separate, that one vision will eventually and inescapably win out and that we must choose (and the sooner the better).
Senator Rubio described the choice as "generational," though that likely sells the decision short. Choosing between the two visions of government he describes is not merely generational, but foundational and thus will affect untold generations.