VENEZUELA-RUBIO

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., during an event with President Donald Trump (not pictured) and the Venezuelan American community in Miami on Feb. 18, 2019. 

Marco Rubio regrets mocking philosophy majors.

"Going back to when I ran for president, one of the moments that people remember is when I talked about how we need more welders and less philosophers," the senior senator from Florida said in an interview. "Since that time, I've actually been reading philosophy a little bit. Like the Stoics. I am, actually, maybe not so negative on philosophy anymore."

Rubio said his underlying point about the importance of vocational education remains, but he's come to recognize the need for a more intellectual approach to modernize conservatism and save the country.

The senator argues that the primary purpose of capitalism is to provide for human dignity. He has concluded since losing the Republican nomination to Donald Trump in 2016 that corporate executives, by prioritizing shareholders above workers and quarterly profits above the national interest, have caused an existential crisis of confidence in the underpinnings of the free-enterprise system.

The senator has carefully picked his spots when it comes to airing public disagreements with the president. He's largely gone along with the Republican zeitgeist, with some notable exceptions, such as voting to override Trump's declaration of a national emergency to divert military construction money for a border wall. But, at just 48 and representing the quintessential battleground state, Rubio remains well positioned to chart a post-Trump future for the GOP and to make another run for the presidency down the road.

The senator shared with me a 17-page working draft of a lecture he delivered to business students at the Catholic University of America. He gets quite philosophical for a politician. For example, Rubio cites the Greek statesman Pericles ("When a man is doing well for himself but his country is falling to pieces, he goes to pieces along with it") and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius ("That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees").

Rubio also leans on his personal faith while discussing his increasingly populist economic policy. He quotes four popes, including the past three. At the heart of his prepared remarks is a lengthy rumination on an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. "Rerum Novarum," as the encyclical was called, represented the Catholic Church's response to the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution. Leo endorsed the right of workers to form unions so they can partake in the benefits that they create, while affirming the right to own private property. More broadly, the pope rejected socialism but also laissez-faire capitalism.

"The social doctrine of the church is not something that gets a lot of attention," Rubio told me. "I mean, its teachings on issues like marriage and abortion and so forth get all the coverage. But there's a very rich social doctrine that sometimes is misinterpreted and sometimes just not understood. And a lot of it is based on the importance and value of work, but also on the obligation of the employer and of the private economy to provide dignified work."

Rubio said he believes the 128-year-old treatise from the Vatican takes on fresh urgency against the backdrop of America's great power competition with China, which is antagonistic to Christianity and human rights.

"China is undertaking a patient, well-designed effort to reorient the global order to their advantage, but how can we possibly take on this challenge . . . if we do not first confront our crises at home? Because we are in a competition with a near-peer adversary with three times our population, we can't afford to leave anyone behind. As Robert F. Kennedy did in 1968, we must once again accept the indivisible tie between culture and economics."

The senator calls for an embrace of what he calls "common-good capitalism," in which employers and workers seek to cooperate more than they do in the pursuit of mutual benefits. "We've lost this concept in American life that all of us have a series of rights and obligations," Rubio said. "I think we're all well versed on our rights, but the concept of obligation has gone away and oftentimes people forget that this also applies to the business sector."

He presents his proposal as a corrective to the excesses of both parties. "The belief that economic policy is solely about maximizing the rights of business and GDP growth became conventional wisdom on the political right, and the belief that economic policy is solely about defending the rights of the workers against the greed of business owners has become the conventional wisdom of the political left," he said. "For almost three decades now, our economic debate has boiled down to a false choice between these two misguided positions. The result has inflicted tremendous harm on Americans."

The senator blames what's known as "shareholder primacy theory" for a host of ills. He links a decline in the availability of the kind of dignified work that his parents found when they arrived from Cuba in 1956 to weakened families and communities. After all, people need to work more hours to make ends meet and therefore have less free time to participate in civic or church life.

"When dignified work is unavailable, more families need Thanksgiving meals delivered, but fewer families have the money or time to provide them," Rubio plans to say in his remarks. "When dignified work is unavailable, men are hit especially hard, because something that is core to being a man - providing for your family - has been taken away."

Rubio calls for government policies that disincentivize selfish corporate decision-making, such as imposing taxes on share buybacks, while rewarding investment in domestic manufacturing and new research. He also wants to change the tax code to expand the federal per-child tax credit and enact a paid family leave policy. Rubio said he's trying to use his perch as chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship to revamp the Small Business Administration to channel more financing toward small manufacturers rather than "lifeless corporate conglomerates."

"Our number one objective in economic policy should not simply be GDP growth or the performance of the stock market," he said. "Our number one priority in our economic policy should be the creation of dignified work for Americans because of all the things that come and flow from that."

Tuesday's speech built on an article Rubio wrote in August for a journal called First Things, which focuses on the intersection of religion and public life, about the purpose of economics.

Rubio defended bringing his faith into a conversation about economics because he said it reinforces values such as respecting others, caring for the less fortunate, telling the truth and being courteous. He said Christianity and most other religious traditions instill "a lot of the things that people complain that we've lost in the crassness of this culture."

The senator makes a joke about the blowback that Attorney General Bill Barr received for a speech on religious liberty at the University of Notre Dame a few weeks ago. "I am here today fully aware that . . . nowadays if a Catholic public official speaks to a Catholic audience on the intersection between our faith and public policy, we'll be accused of supporting a 'religious theocracy' right out of 'The Handmaid's Tale,'" Rubio writes. "So in order to avoid controversy, I could have started my remarks by quoting from some mainstream acceptable sources of wisdom, such as Oprah Winfrey or some 'woke' entertainer. But, instead, I settled on focusing on the writings of a 19th-century Italian named Vincenzo Pecci." (Pecci is Pope Leo XIII.)

When I asked whether his speech should be read as a critique of Trump, Rubio said his message is bigger than any single politician. "I don't know if it's directed at Trumpism," he said.

"There's no doubt that the election of Donald Trump has revealed things to people about the state of mind for many people in our country," he elaborated. "For example, if you look at polling I've seen over the last couple of years, a growing number of Americans believe that those who are members of the opposite party aren't just wrong. . . . They view them as a threat to the country. That sort of political tribalism I don't think is unique to Donald Trump. I think you see it on the other side as well. . . . It would be wrong to blame that on social media or the press, the president or the Democrats. The truth of the matter is that one reason why it's happening is because a lot of Americans simply don't know people that are different than them politically."

Rubio said he fears the impeachment process will only worsen these trends. "I think impeachment is a symptom of it, not the cause of it," the senator said, referring to tribalism. "I do think impeachment is a traumatic experience for a country and in this environment, even more so. For those who truly don't like this president and would like to see him removed, that's what the ballot box is for. That doesn't mean impeachment is something you can never use, but I certainly think that, as part of this, you have to consider what's in the best interest of America."

He said the president's political success revealed the need for more systemic than cosmetic changes to the architecture of the American economy. "You have these economic numbers that ebb and flow," Rubio explained. "Some of them are very good numbers, certainly, from a traditional perspective of what they mean. And yet you have this lingering sense that, you know, there's some sort of sickness that's taken hold, something that's deep into the culture and in society and in our economy that we have that's leaving people disconnected, separated, divided, anxious and so forth."

Rubio was adamant that he's not "triangulating" with the times. "Honestly, this is just a continuation of what we've been doing for five or six years," he said. "When I ran for president, the theme was 'A New American Century,' and the central argument of it was that our policies were outdated and had not been adapted to the 21st century. I just think this is a continuing development of that thought process."

He said his advocacy for "common-good capitalism" is partly driven by polls showing growing receptiveness toward socialism, especially among younger voters. "Some politicians today entice us to embrace socialism, with the promise that only the government can provide us these things, but in practice that's never how it works," he will say in his speech on Tuesday. "Because a government that guarantees you a basic income is also one that decides where you work and how much you make. A government that promises you free health care is also one that decides who your doctor is and what care you'll receive. A government that promises free college is also one that decides what school you must go to and what you are taught."

Rubio said he wants to express sympathy about the challenges that studenst will face. "They are angry at a system that has been rigged against them by the very people who created these problems," he said. "The people who enjoyed cheaper college themselves, but then turned around and raised tuition. The people who brazenly adopted the motto 'greed is good' in the 1980s but then caused a catastrophic financial crisis and left them with this disordered economy. It is a truth recognized in both ancient and contemporary times that no nation can be strong if the whole nation does not benefit from its strength."

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The Washington Post's Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report.

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