Marco Rubio Is Quiet on Social Issues While Barnstorming Iowa

The Florida senator instead focuses on economic and foreign policy issues in a “new American century.”

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 17, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

As Marco Rubio criss-crossed Iowa this week, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the agenda he outlined for voters was the items he didn't bring up.

Over the course of three days, one of the youngest members of the big Republican presidential field traveled more than 150 miles in the state where the first ballots of the election will be cast early next year in caucuses. At seven events, the Florida senator gave speeches and chatted up potential voters, ranging from young patrons of the Exile Brewing Company bar in Des Moines to Republicans at the Cedar Rapids Country Club to an older crowd at the Wilton Community Center.

Conspicuously unmentioned were abortion, same-sex marriage (which the Supreme Court legalized nationwide recently), and President Barack Obama's health care law (which the justices also upheld against an existential legal challenge). Not that there's any doubt Rubio opposes gay marriage and abortion rights and wants to get rid of the health care law (a placard his campaign handed out mentioned “repeal and replace Obamacare”). They just didn't feature into his stump speeches.

His message was the same everywhere, emphasizing middle-class economic struggles and a need to use American might to fix a world spinning into “chaos.”

That's striking in a state where evangelical voters have always been a key Republican caucus constituency. Many of Rubio's rivals on the trail have been going out of their way to polish their conservative credentials by highlighting their opposition to all three issues.  

Asked why he wasn't focusing on social issues, Rubio told reporters Wednesday afternoon he's “more than happy to discuss” them when they come up in question-and-answer sessions. He said they are important, “and on various occasions we've addressed them. But the core argument we have has to do with America's place in the world in the 21st century.”

His pitch in a nutshell: America is poised to fade into a dark future—but that can change with his election. His distinguishing trait: a young, fresh face to take on Hillary Clinton, the clear Democratic front-runner, and lead a country he casts as irreversibly changed by globalization and technology.

“This is the most important election our nation has had in a generation,” Rubio said in Cedar Rapids. “I'm telling you we can be greater than we've ever been,” he added, “but it will require us to turn the page on the past.” Then he asked listeners for their support.

Policy prescriptions he touted include slashing the corporate tax rate and federal regulations to boost businesses; protecting the defense budget while chopping Social Security and Medicare for future generations in order to resolve a looming “debt crisis”; and encouraging alternatives to traditional four-year college degrees, which are imposing mountains of debt on young Americans without equipping many of them with skills relevant for the 21st century.

“The market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for the last 2,000 years,” Rubio said, in a repeat line that always drew approving laughs.

Medicare “can no longer be a fee-for-service system for everybody,” he said, recommending a proposal by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan to phase out the popular health care plan for older Americans as a direct government insurance program and replace it with a voucher system that would allow recipients to shop for private or government-provided plans. On Social Security, he proposed raising the retirement age and slowing the growth of benefits.

Then he pivoted to foreign policy. “None of this matters if we aren't safe,” Rubio said. He called for using American power to confront China, Russia, and Iran's nuclear ambitions and to advance democracy globally.

Rubio's speeches, carefully crafted with jokes sprinkled throughout, played to his unique generational message. He was warmly received at his campaign stops, although questions lingered in voters' minds about his youth and relative inexperience as a legislator who has hasn't served in a major executive position.

While omitting abortion and gay marriage from his stump speeches may seem a risky choice in Iowa, it may also reflect a certain political pragmatism. Rubio is unlikely to out-do other Republicans who have more established ties to the evangelical community or are making social issues more central to their campaigns, such as former Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Moreover, Rubio's economic focus could appeal to many wealthy Republican donors want the party to de-emphasize social issues.

State Senator Jack Whitver, the chairman of Rubio's Iowa campaign, said there was no deliberate strategy to go light on social conservatism or Obamacare on the stump. But he said the two issues the campaign most frequently hears about from Iowans are the economy and foreign policy. Invoking his strong voting scores from right-leaning groups, Whiver added: “Senator Rubio is a full-spectrum conservative.”