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You Shouldn’t Have to Survive a Terrorist Attack to Get Student Debt Relief

Marco Rubio has been hailed as an embodiment of some Republicans’ newfound economic populism. But his new student debt relief plan shows how much of a farce that all is: it pauses student loan payments for one year… for survivors of terrorist attacks.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Michael Reynolds / Getty Images)

Fox News this month called Florida senator Marco Rubio a “fervent supporter” of “populist politics.” The American Prospect identified him last month as a leading representative of something called “Republican Economic Populism.” Writing last year in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, A. J. Kaufman claimed that Rubio has “been a fiscal populist for a while.”

But what exactly does any of this mean?

If “populism” refers to a rhetorical style rather than a policy platform, then Rubio counts as a populist. He often claims to represent the aspirations of the great mass of ordinary people who are misunderstood or despised by elites. But Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan liked to talk that way too. So did consummate Democratic centrists Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who called their 1992 campaign book Putting People First. If that’s “populism,” then nearly everyone’s a populist.

On the Right, claiming to wage a culture war on behalf of Middle America in opposition to “Hollywood elites” (in the parlance of the 1980s Moral Majority) or “woke” elites (in the parlance of today) is about as bold and original as claiming to revere America and love Jesus. But remember, Rubio isn’t supposed to just be a cultural but also a “fiscal” or “economic” populist.

And that’s nonsense. Rubio doesn’t want to increase the minimum wage. He opposes legislation that makes it easier for workers to organize unions, even deploying the culture war rhetoric sometimes hailed as “populist” to make his case. “Too often,” he’s written, “the right to form a union has been, in practice, a requirement that business owners allow left-wing social organizers to take over their workplaces.”

He’s flatly said he would never support Medicare for All. In fact, his health care views are far less “populist” than even those of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Hillary Clinton. The Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s modest limitations on health insurers’ exploitative practices were too much for Rubio, who was willing to repeal the ACA and replace it with nothing.

Rubio’s pattern of opposing any legislation that would help ordinary people at the expense of economic elites holds true for higher education, too. In a 2019 op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times, he wrote that his “colleagues on the left” were calling for “free college and complete loan forgiveness.” Three guesses about what he thought about that.

So what is the politician that Donald Trump memorably roasted as “Little Marco” willing to do to help people drowning in student loan debt?

Hold that thought. Remember the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, when Elizabeth Warren introduced a plan to forgive massive amounts of student debt, Bernie Sanders went further and advocated universal student debt cancelation for the obvious reason that education should be a public good rather than a commodity in the first place, and Kamala Harris wanted to nix up to $20,000 in student loan debt… but only for Pell Grant recipients who start successful businesses in disadvantaged communities?

That was widely and correctly mocked as a reductio ad absurdum of vapid corporate-friendly centrism.

Well, Marco Rubio has managed to do Kamala one better. Reviving an idea he first had after the horrific Pulse Night Club shooting in 2016, Rubio just introduced legislation to…wait for it…pause student loan payments for one year for survivors of terrorist attacks.

Rubio has managed to find a group smaller than Pell Grant recipients who start successful businesses in disadvantaged communities. And he won’t forgive any of their debt. He’ll put it on hold for a year. That’s as good as it gets.

“Republican Economic Populism” might describe the preferences of a certain subset of the electorate, but as a description of the policy preferences of Rubio or any other major Republican politician, it’s a sick joke.