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Rubio On Compromise, Immigration And His 'Union Activist' Past

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., delivers a speech during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February in Washington.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., delivers a speech during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February in Washington.

To hear Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tell it, it's happenstance that his newly published memoir, An American Son, became available just as the speculation about Republican vice presidential possibilities is heating up.

Rubio, a rising Cuban-American star in his party, told NPR's Robert Siegel, co-host of All Things Considered, in a Thursday interview:

"We had the opportunity to write this book. There were people who expressed interest in publishing it, who thought I had something to say. I don't think you write a book unless you have something to say. And I wanted to share the experience my family had in coming to this country. The things they faced even before I was born, going all the way back to my grandfather as a young man.

"I wanted to share my experiences and my life on the campaign trail because I think for people of my generation, whether it comes to the work-life balance, or some of the doubts I had about myself when I was running for office, these sorts of things, they're instructive to people.

"But beyond that, I wanted to share my view of America and how, through my parents' experience, as the son of a bartender and a maid, how I've come to the political decisions and the political conclusions that I've arrived at."

Rubio said the book's timing was simply a function of when he completed it.

In the interview, Robert sought to draw Rubio out on his evolution from a Ted Kennedy-loving liberal as a child in the 1970s and 1980s to a conservative politician who became a darling of the Tea Party. Robert said he was unclear after reading the book whether there was an "Aha!" moment for the senator that led to an ideological break from his past.

For instance, in the book, Rubio reveals that he was disappointed as a child by his father's decision to return to work after walking a picket line outside a hotel in Las Vegas, where the family then lived. Young Rubio even called his father a scab and, in the book, refers to himself as a "committed union activist."

The senator indicated that his shift to conservatism was gradual and that President Ronald Reagan and the senator's grandfather figured in the transformation.

"Two things emerged in the 1980s during my growing up. The first thing that led me to Reagan and conservatism, specifically as it was viewed in the 1980s, was this view that America's role in the world was indispensable and that a strong America both militarily and diplomatically was key to world peace and key to other people's freedoms. And that's what my grandfather, more than anything else, deposited in me.

"As I got older, one of the things I began to appreciate was the American free enterprise system and the opportunities that it can provide people from the perspective of my parents.

"My dad was a bartender. And my mom was a cashier and a maid and other jobs. And I came to recognize that the reason that they had those jobs was because someone who had made some money invested that money, opening up a hotel where they were able to work and provide for us. And that the job of government was to create the conditions where that would be possible and encouraged in the future."

While the senator obviously wouldn't describe himself as a union activist anymore, he said he does still believe in workers' right to organize. But he criticized union "bosses" whose priority, he said, was to maintain their power.

He also chided public employee unions, saying:

"I think the problem that we're having, unfortunately across the country, with local municipal unions is that somehow they have come to believe, I mean in their union leadership, that they should somehow be exempt from the difficult decisions that local governments have to make.

"You can't have more government than your taxpayers and economy can afford. And unions and their benefits can't be held exempt from that. And I think that's where you've seen this come to a head, in terms of collective bargaining and the need to redo some of these deals — which in some states is very difficult because of the way the law is designed."

Many analysts say Rubio may have the most political potential of any Florida Republican. But before Rubio there was Jeb Bush, the former governor — as well as the son and brother of presidents — and a mentor to Rubio.

Robert put to Rubio recent criticisms Bush has made of the uncompromising positions taken by many conservatives, especially those of the Tea Party movement. Bush said Reagan or his father would have found it difficult to succeed in the modern Republican Party.

Rubio responded that he wasn't against compromises that led to effective solutions but rather compromise for the sake of compromise that failed to solve problems:

RUBIO: "I don't think he meant that as a comment on the Tea Party. And I don't think the Tea Party approach is that, by the way. I think there are some in both political parties who believe [in a] 'It's our way or highway' perspective.

"I think we should always remind ourselves that while we should never compromise our principles, particularly the principles we were elected on, there's always room to compromise on ideas about how to put those principles into practice. I think that's where the debate has to happen.

"And I constantly remind people that our Constitution that enshrines freedoms on paper also gave us a system of government that requires us to find solutions to our problems by working with people we disagree with."

ROBERT: You're facing a fiscal crisis at the end of this year, for example. You just assume you're going to have to vote for something that's going to include big elements you don't like. And Democrats are going to have to vote for things they don't like."

RUBIO: "I think we're going to have to vote for something that solves the problem. Just to say we voted on something for the sake of saying we compromised, that doesn't solve the problem — doesn't make any sense to me. We have to find a solution. And whatever we vote on has to solve things.

"And I think some of the things that people on the left propose when it comes to our economy doesn't solve the problem. For example, I don't have a moral, religious objection to tax increases. I just think they hurt growth and job creation. And that's why I don't think any solution should have tax increases. Not because I'm trying to, because I have some sort of orthodoxy on tax increases. It's because I believe by raising taxes we hurt growth, which is the only way out of this predicament."

On the day when Mitt Romney, the all-but-official Republican presidential nominee, spoke to Latino elected officials in Orlando, Robert asked Rubio (whose interview preceded the Romney speech) what the GOP message on immigration should be.

RUBIO: "We're the pro-legal immigration party. Legal immigration has been good for America. We're the most generous country in the world, even now on immigration. A million people a year come here from all over the world and millions more are waiting to come."

ROBERT: "And kids who are here who had no part of the decision to come illegally?"

RUBIO: "As I said in the campaign consistently we have to figure out a way to accommodate them that deals with it in a humanitarian way but doesn't encourage illegal immigration in the future. And that's what we're endeavoring to do."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.