Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, 44, is the youngest among leading contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Born in Miami of Cuban immigrants, the one-time high school football star rose from positions in local government to become speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. After winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2010, he helped forge a bipartisan compromise on immigration policy.
He has lately edged away from that legislative victory, which went nowhere in the House amid fierce criticism from conservatives. Now Rubio has put a sweeping tax reform plan, which he calls necessary for adapting the U.S. economy to 21st Century challenges, at the center of his White House campaign. He sat down with me at a Cuban restaurant in Detroit, where he was addressing that city's Economic Club. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: You've been very strong in saying it was disgraceful that the president re-established relations with Cuba. Does it give you any pause to know that the pope has a different view and was part of that opening?
RUBIO: No. The pope has a different job than I do. The pope's job is to be the spiritual leader of the Catholic church, and to always call us to unity and brotherly love, and I understand that. And we all have that calling to some extent. But I'm a U.S. senator, and my job is to serve the national interests of the United States. I do not believe it is in the national interest of the United States to have a one-sided agreement with an anti-American, communist tyranny 90 miles from our shores.
I'm not against all changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba. I just think they need to be reciprocal. If we're going to provide more travel to Cuba, the Cubans are going to have to make some changes on the island.
John Paul was fiercely anti-communist, very involved in his homeland of Poland. I want the Cuban people to have what the Polish people had, which is the opportunity to free themselves from the yoke of the tyranny that they live under. I don't criticize what the pope is doing. I understand what his calling is. One of his things he's trying to achieve is more space for the Catholic church in the island, to be able to carry out its mission of saving souls.
HARWOOD: Does it give you any pause to know that your parents left 60 years ago, and you've never set foot in Havana? Doesn't that make you question the vehemence of your views?
RUBIO: No. Because I interact with people all the time that have just come from there, dissidents that come here and go back. I'm not operating in a vacuum, and I'm not operating out of things I read in a book. I'm dealing with people, I'm dealing with dissidents that come to the U.S. and speak to us about what's happening. I have that benefit of that interaction combined with the benefit of understanding U.S. policy towards Cuba, and understanding the history behind it, and the nature of this regime.
Most Americans don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. And most of the public policy leaders in our country don't know a lot about the true nature of the Castro regime and what's happening there. And what's happening there is very simple: Raul Castro is transitioning that government eventually towards a succession that will involve his son as the leader of that country. What they're looking for is enough revenue to allow that system of government they have in place to sustain itself for the long term. And this opening, this one-sided opening will make it easier for him to achieve that goal. And that means the Cuban people will never have freedom.
HARWOOD: You said in the debate the other day that you can compete toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton on people who live paycheck to paycheck because you lived paycheck to paycheck. How do you think people who are living paycheck to paycheck will receive the news that your tax plan eliminates taxes on estates, capital gains and dividends?
RUBIO: Well, first of all, capital gains and dividends is investment. That means someone is taking money they have access to and investing it in something. That's how jobs are created.
My father had a job as a bartender at a hotel. And the reason why he had a job as a bartender is because someone who had money invested in that hotel. Invested in building it, invested in expanding it, invested in modernizing it so people would keep coming back. And that's why people visited that hotel. That's why my dad had a salary, and that's why he had tips.
Anything you tax, you're going to get less of it. So that's why we tax cigarettes, because we don't want people to smoke. We want more investment; why would we tax it? Now I understand that in the process of a negotiation with other policymakers, it may not be 100 percent my plan, but that's the direction we should head. But that's not the only thing the tax plan does. It also lowers the business taxes on business income, especially for S corporations. Most American business activity happens through a pass through an S Corp.
HARWOOD: Let me ask you about a couple of aspects of the plan on the personal side that conservatives have objected to, The Wall Street Journal and others. One, they say you've given up on the growth agenda because the cuts in marginal rates at the top are small; two, you increase taxes on some people in the middle because you lower that 35 percent bracket down; three, you increase the deficit substantially over the next 10 years.
RUBIO: They're wrong on all three points. The growth happens on the business side. This is what creates growth in America, is when people take money they have access to and invest it to start a new business or grow an existing one. That's what creates jobs, that's what creates demand. And we have the most pro-growth tax plan of anyone on the business side.
The only quarrel that conservatives or The Wall Street Journal had is on the personal side, and it's primarily because of the child tax credit. It is expensive to raise children in the 21st century. I'm raising four myself so I know everything costs more. You want to strengthen America? Strengthen families. Help families with the cost of daily living. People that are raising children are making an extraordinary investment in America's future. Those are our future taxpayers they're raising. Those are the people that are going to sustain Medicare and Social Security.
A family is making an investment in America's future. Put it to you this way: If they were a business and they were buying equipment, the tax code would account for that and say, "OK, you bought a piece of equipment. You're going to get to deduct that from your taxes." They're investing in people.
HARWOOD: You want to raise the retirement age for Social Security? Do you agree with President [George W.] Bush on private accounts?
RUBIO: No, I think the time has passed for that. The traditional three stools of retirement—the defined benefit plan, Social Security and private savings—are all under stress. And I think that we do need to provide more flexibility on the personal side where people can find more vehicles for their own money. But Social Security itself, no, I don't think privatization is the right approach.
Absolutely, I'm going to have to work a year longer than my parents did. What I tell people my age and younger is, "Our benefits (are) not going to grow as fast as our parents' grew. Especially if we've been financially successful." These are not draconian changes for future generations. But here's the truth: Our Social Security and Medicare is going to be different than our parents' one way or the other.
HARWOOD: Do you think that fetal tissue research with tissue from aborted babies is wrong, immoral?
RUBIO: I do. That wouldn't exist if abortion was illegal. It is the byproduct of the death of an unborn child who has a right to live.
HARWOOD: So do you think it was immoral for Ben Carson to conduct fetal tissue research?
RUBIO: I don't know what Ben Carson did, and you'll have to ask him about it. I'm not an expert on fetal tissue research. I don't want to comment on things I don't know all the details on.
The fact that that exists creates the industry that Planned Parenthood has now entered into. Where just yesterday we see a video where a child whose heart was still beating had her brain removed. This is an outrage. It's grotesque. And American taxpayers are paying for it.
HARWOOD: You not only are young, you look really young. I was talking to someone with one of the other campaigns who said, "People are going to look at Rubio and say great young man, not this time. We just had a first-time senator from Illinois get elected president, and Republicans don't like the results." What do you think about that?
RUBIO: I hear people say that. But the first thing is, I have achieved things before I even got into the U.S. Senate. I was the speaker of the third-largest and most diverse state in the country. I served in local government before that. And now we've achieved things in the Senate despite the fact that four out of the past five years I've been there it was controlled by Democrats.
I don't think Barack Obama failed because he was a senator, or because he hadn't been in the Senate long enough. I think he has failed because his ideas don't work. And his ideas would've failed whether he had been in the Senate 50 years or five. He's been president now for 6 1/2 years, which gives him more presidential experience than anyone else running for president. He's still failing. So clearly it's not the experience part.
Unfortunately, I think he has been successful at achieving his agenda. He got Obamacare, he signed a deal with Iran.
HARWOOD: In what respect is he failing? We're one of the healthiest major economies in the world. Sixteen million people added to health care.
RUBIO: In comparison to where the world is today, yeah, America's still a great country. But that's not due to our policies, that's despite our policies. Look at wages in America. They're not growing. He's done nothing to help that turn around. In fact, he's made it harder for people to make more money.
There's no doubt that he inherited these tectonic shifts in our economy. The job of leadership—and it's what my core message is—is we're not living through just an economic downturn, we are living through a massive economic transformation. We need leadership that understands that, and understands how to harness the power of this new economy to create the better jobs to revolutionize higher education, to equip people with the skills they need for these better jobs. He's failed to do that. He's doubled down on the failed old ideas of the old economy.
It's not enough to just create more jobs. They have to be better-paying jobs. In the 21st century, the better-paying jobs are driven by innovation—and we don't have enough of that in America because of regulatory policy, and tax policy, and a potential debt crisis, and on and on.
HARWOOD: Scott Walker is blaming you guys for not repealing Obamacare; he said, "All these Republicans in the Senate promised that if we had a Republican majority we'd repeal Obamacare. They haven't done it." Is that partly your fault?
RUBIO: That's campaign talk. I wish we could do more. I wish we had 60 votes in the Senate. But more importantly, I wish we had a president that would sign a repeal of Obamacare. That's why I'm running for president. We're not going to be able to make a difference until we have a better president. That's why I'm leaving the Senate and running for president, because I can make a difference there that we haven't been able to make over the last four and a half years.