Wonk Rubio or populist Rubio? You never know. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The Two Marco Rubios

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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There are wonk politicians, who produce good ideas that are a little boring. There are populist politicians, who spout nonsense to motivate their base. And then there's Marco Rubio, who lately does both, pretty much at the same time.

On Tuesday, Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, offered proposals for improving the financial security of older Americans, including increasing the financial reward for people who choose to work longer. He called for eliminating the 12.4 percent Social Security tax for people who are past the retirement age, and ending the clawback in Social Security benefits for people between 62 and 65 who are still working.

Those are promising ideas. The government has struggled to address age discrimination, so lessening the cost employers face for hiring older workers seems worth trying. And as Rubio noted, the benefits withheld from people who keep working after 62 just get paid out later, so ending the clawback wouldn't cost the government any money.

We could debate how much that would help, but it's the kind of marginal, incentive-based change policy makers need to consider as more people reach retirement age and fewer have adequate pensions. The same goes for Rubio's proposal to let more people access the Thrift Savings Plan that federal employees use to save retirement: a modest idea that is more likely to help than hurt.

(The speech wasn't perfect. Inexplicably for a talk about improving the financial well-being of retirees, Rubio concluded by advocating for turning Medicare into a voucher program, which the Congressional Budget Office says would more than double the amount the elderly pay for their health care. But fine. Proposing a few good ideas is still an accomplishment.)

But any attention to Rubio's retirement speech was completely swamped by his comments two days earlier, when he said humans aren't to blame for climate change, and it's folly to believe government action can make a difference. Here's what he told ABC News's Jonathan Karl:

RUBIO: I don't agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what's happening in our climate. Our climate is always changing. And what they have chosen to do is take a handful of decades of research and -- and say that this is now evidence of a longer-term trend that's directly and almost solely attributable to man-made activity ...

KARL: You don't buy ...

RUBIO: I do not agree with that.

If you agree with Rubio on that point -- which is to say, if you believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is nothing more than a bunch of scientists who "are getting paid to say" the climate is changing -- then no amount of information to the contrary is likely to change your mind. And if Rubio wants to chase your vote, he'll have plenty of company.

But what makes those comments disheartening isn't that they're wrong. It's that the Rubio who denies man-made climate change is so much less interesting than the Rubio who talks about retirement policies -- or about innovative solutions to college loans, or about the need for immigration reform. I like that Rubio. He's unpredictable, and fun to have around.

So instead of castigating Rubio for playing to his party's worst instincts over climate change, let's tell him how much we enjoy his doppelganger, the guy with the ideas. And let's remind him what happened the last time a Republican presidential candidate with good ideas tried to placate his party's fringe: He eventually got back to offering good ideas. But by that point, nobody really cared anymore.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net