Marco Rubio’s brainy political strategy

Updated 12:27 PM EDT, Fri March 20, 2015
(CNN) —  

Marco Rubio has a plan to build his national profile: Take on Washington’s least sexy issues.

As he prepares for an expected 2016 presidential bid, the Florida Republican senator has released policy plans for a series of thorny debates including retirement security and higher education reform.

The latest installment is a tax reform plan, released this month with his colleague Mike Lee of Utah, that would slash the top corporate tax rate and give some families larger child tax credits.

It’s a move that carries plenty of political risk for Rubio. Making big changes to the tax code is typically divisive and inevitably attracts criticism from across the political spectrum.

But in a crowded Republican primary that is likely to include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his one-time mentor, taking on dense debates can help establish Rubio as an “ideas” candidate and boost his political and policy gravitas.

“He’s not going to be the guy that organizes the most money or the guy that goes out to build the traditional coalition,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and presidential candidate. “He’s going to be the guy that says: Look … if you think we need someone with big ideas about the future, I’m your guy.”

Struggled to break through

Rubio, 43, has struggled so far to break through into the top ranks of potential Republican 2016 candidates. He came in at 7% in a CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday, lagging behind Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Chris Christie.

But Rubio’s tax plan is getting him some notice.

“He’s put forward something that will be part of any final Republican proposal,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading anti-tax advocate. “If you get a Republican president, what will they do? Something between what (House Ways and Means Committee Chair Paul) Ryan does, and this.”

READ: Rubio heckled by immigration protesters

Rubio advisers welcome the chance to paint Rubio as an ideas candidate. They point out that he’s focused on policy since he was first elected to office, going back to his time in the Florida legislature when he hosted town halls dubbed “idea raisers” and published his first book titled “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future.”

“We’ve been rolling out detailed policy plans for over a year now,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. “And he’s going to keep talking about policy for the next two years.”

The Rubio-Lee plan takes aim at business taxes. It would lower the top rate from 35% to 25% for corporations and so-called pass-throughs like partnerships. It would let companies expense investments and eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends for individuals, though they would no longer be allowed to deduct interest payments. The plan also proposes a revamped child tax credit and creates just two individual income tax brackets — 15% for an individual making up to $75,000 (or $150,000 for married couples), and 35% for everyone else.


In a demonstration of how controversial an issue tax reform can be, Rubio’s plan has spurred criticism on both sides of the political aisle.

Democrats have zeroed in on the part of the proposal that they said would benefit corporations and dismissed the proposal as an attempt to please wealthy Republican donors. The GOP has paid a high price in past elections for the perception that the party caters mainly to the wealthy.

Meanwhile, some conservatives have indicated they’re less enthusiastic about the fact that the proposal would hemorrhage money – at least in the short term.

Jim Pethokoukis of the conservative American Enterprise Institute called this the one “downside” in what he said was an otherwise “serious” proposal.

“The big concern is that this is not deficit neutral. If you’re worried about the debt or deficit, that’s a big chunk of change,” Pethokoukis said.

The tax plan caps a series of policy issues Rubio has attempted to tackle over the last year including higher education, retirement security, Obamacare and regulation of the tech industry.

The Rubio-Lee tax plan attempts to address what is shaping up to be a top political priority for the GOP headed into 2016: middle class outreach.

READ: The GOP battle for the middle class

The $2,500 child tax credit, analysts say, should be well-received by families with children who want to feel like they are getting money in their pockets immediately. Eric Toder of the Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center is skeptical of the notion that the Rubio-Lee plan will eventually pay for itself, but said the child tax credit should help boost the proposal’s appeal among middle class voters.

“The tax plans that are put out in the primary season are meant to appeal to the base,” Toder said. “Part of the Republican constituency is people with large families who will benefit from the expansion of child credits.”

’Going first’

Advisers said there was no correlation between the timing of Rubio’s tax plan release and a GOP primary season that’s rapidly gaining heat. But a tax plan is an essential part of any presidential candidate’s platform, and in the coming months, other likely GOP candidates are expected to share their own vision on tax reform and come at the issue from different angles.

READ: Rubio gets serious personal with Iowans

Bush has declined to sign Norquist’s famous pledge to never raise taxes and has come under fire for signaling that he would be open to a so-called “grand bargain” to get the country’s fiscal house in order. Paul, on the other hand, recently promised to unveil the “largest tax cut in American history.” An official announcement is expected within the next few weeks.

For now, Rubio enjoys the benefit of being the first of the pack to address the issue in a comprehensive way this cycle.

“By going first, you also issue a challenge to everyone else in town and everyone else who may or may not be seeking higher office,” said Sage Eastman, a longtime policy adviser to former Rep. Dave Camp, the ex-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “It’s clearly looking to drive the conversation, and it’s better to be in the driver’s seat than in the back seat.”