Two speeches, two thunderbolts. One a plea for moderation, the other a call to arms.
In announcing his decision not to seek re-election, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said, "I do not love Congress." He explained: "I am not motivated by strident partisanship or ideology. These traits may be useful in many walks of life, but they are not highly valued in Congress."
Bayh is a moderate. Moderates used to be very influential in Congress. In the past when Democrats were the majority party, moderate Southern Democrats were the crucial swing voters. Their support was courted by both sides. When Republicans became the majority in 1994, moderate Republicans held the balance of power. They could swing either way.
Rubio contended that the Obama administration and the Democrats have a sinister hidden agenda.
Today, moderates in both parties are treated with something like contempt. They are scoffed at as weak-willed, unprincipled, and disloyal. Bayh is under attack for abandoning his party in its moment of peril. Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is called a traitor by Republicans and an opportunist by Democrats. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, drew sneers when she voted for the Senate health care bill before she voted against it. Retiring Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, lamented that the Republican Party has been taken over by Southern conservatives. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., branded Voinovich "a moderate, really wishy-washy."
Marco Rubio, a former Florida House speaker, was anything but wishy-washy when he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. "America already has a Democrat Party," the Senate candidate declared. "It doesn't need two Democrat parties.... Voters are looking for leaders that will offer a clear alternative."
Rubio thrilled his CPAC audience by paying tribute to American exceptionalism, something he is particularly qualified to do as the son of Cuban immigrants. "Simply put, there's nothing like America in all the world," he proclaimed. The essence of American exceptionalism, Rubio said, is the belief in limited government. "Americans chose individual liberty instead of the false security of government."
Rubio is right about that. The United States was founded on a belief in limited government; it has the weakest system of government among all advanced industrial societies. That is why the U.S. system is unexportable -- compared with, say, the British parliamentary system. It only works here.
But Rubio took the argument one step further. He contended that the Obama administration and the Democrats have a sinister hidden agenda: They want to make America unexceptional. "They are using this downturn as cover not to fix America but to try to change America, to fundamentally redefine the role of government," Rubio charged.
Earlier in the week, Bayh said, "Congress is not operating as it should. There is ... too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving." Rubio said that Americans want leaders who can work together to get things done, but he added what he called "a very important caveat": "It depends what they're trying to do."
Rubio's speech was a frontal assault on the legitimacy of his political opponents, whom he depicts as radical extremists. "If the goal is not to fix America but to change America," Rubio said, then Americans "want leaders that are going to come up here and fight [that approach] every step of the way."
Do they? The "tea party" activists certainly do, and Rubio is one of their champions. The general public does share the conservatives' distrust of government. In the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, only 19 percent of respondents said they feel that the government in Washington can be trusted to do what is right most of the time. But the public's distrust is based on performance, not ideology.
The CBS/Times poll asked, "In trying to solve the economic problems facing the country, do you think Barack Obama has expanded the role of government too much, not enough, or about the right amount?" Thirty-six percent said "too much." The majority said either "not enough" (21 percent) or "about right" (37 percent).
But when asked, "Do you think Barack Obama does or does not have a clear plan for creating jobs?" about the same size majority (56 percent) said that he does not. The public's complaint is not that President Obama is radical; it's that he's not delivering.
This article appears in the February 27, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.