Just after the Supreme Court announced its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, undoing the right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade, Republican senator Marco Rubio announced a “pro-family framework” for new welfare legislation “to provide comprehensive support for pregnant and new moms, as well as young children.”
“But even now that America’s pro-abortion legal regime has been overturned, our work is far from over,” Rubio wrote in an op-ed announcing the proposals in the Washington Examiner. “We can and must do more for unborn children and their mothers.”
These policy proposals have two political aims. One is to allow Rubio and other Republicans to present the rollback of reproductive freedoms as part of a “pro-family” agenda, born out of a sincere concern for mothers and children. Rubio’s plans are in line with the advice of conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who suggests that the GOP needs to become “more serious about family policy and public health” to sustain its antiabortion victories.
But the modest welfare expansions Rubio is calling for also fit another longer-term goal: the Florida senator’s effort to brand himself as a “working-class conservative.” It’s an attempt, inspired by the likes of Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson and intellectuals like Oren Cass, to position Republicans as the true champions of working people, against the Democrats who are supposedly aligned with Big Tech and “woke capital.”
So far, this brand of right-populism has meant little more than pro-worker rhetoric from Rubio and fellow travelers, or even straight-up anti-union policy given a pro-labor veneer. Some of Rubio’s latest proposals are squarely in line with the GOP’s constant hunger for more austerity. But some do call for genuine — albeit very limited — expansions of the social safety net. But no expansion of welfare policy can justify the Supreme Court’s monstrous decision to strip women of their basic rights.
And rather than representing a push for a generous “pro-life” or conservative social democracy, Rubio’s legislation represents an incredibly meager, means-tested tweak to our neoliberal welfare state. But when Democrats are continuing to run away from working-class politics and failing to mount a real defense of abortion rights, they are leaving themselves vulnerable to posturing by Rubio and other “pro-worker” conservatives.
The most insulting part of Rubio’s plan is a proposal to allow new parents to finance up to three months of paid family leave by taking part of their Social Security benefits early. According to a fact sheet about an earlier version of the proposal, a parent who takes one month of family leave would on average need to retire two months later than they would otherwise. Credit where it’s due: this proposal is astonishingly creative in its presentation of stinginess as pro-worker generosity.
Other elements of the framework are also reactionary: Rubio is calling, for instance, to increase and better enforce child support requirements, including forcing impoverished recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) “to cooperate with the state in establishing child support orders.” The plan also proposes to help mothers by making it easier for faith-based organizations to receive federal grants to provide federal social services — further assaulting the already crumbling barrier between church and state.
The proposals aren’t all bad. Rubio also wants to double the federal Child Tax Credit, for up to $3,500 per child and $4,500 for children under the age of six. He proposes to pay for it by ending the State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction, which mostly helps wealthier Americans. (Sadly, some Democrats have been fighting to expand the SALT deduction.)
But ultimately, the plan is a neoliberal tweak to our country’s incredibly ungenerous safety net. It will do little to help the many families who are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and mounting debt burdens, let alone ease the burden on mothers who may now be forced to carry pregnancies that they do not want (like the ten-year-old rape victim who was just denied an abortion in Ohio) or address the increased subordination that women will now face in the labor market.
More to the point, the rationale behind Rubio’s proposal — that we should seek to provide financial support to families while denying women the right to choose whether and when they start families — is a morally horrific and completely unnecessary trade-off. Depriving women of their bodily autonomy doesn’t become acceptable in exchange for expanding a tax credit.
Even if ethically bankrupt, Rubio’s gambit here may be politically sound. With a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress apparently unable to enact the party’s agenda or even put up a real fight for it, meager expansions of the welfare state could give credence to the claims of Rubio and his fellow travelers to be the real representatives of the working class.
Even worse, Democratic Party leaders seem unwilling to take the steps necessary even to protect abortion rights or other liberties under attack by the Supreme Court. This raises the question, of course, of why anyone should vote for the Democrats. Their answer seems to be that they are better than the other guys — a risky campaign strategy at a time of severe inflation and when President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are in the toilet.
What would it take to jolt the Democrats out of their seeming death spiral? Progressives and democratic socialists in the party like Bernie Sanders and AOC can use their stature to mobilize their supporters against the reactionary elements in their own party, so as to pressure Biden and other party leaders to neutralize roadblocks like senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Overcoming the intransigence of conservative and moderate Democrats will probably require mass protests of the kind we saw during the civil rights era, along with credible primary threats against Democrats who refuse to back popular redistributive policies and the measures needed to save abortion rights. Progressives will be most likely to sustain and prevail in this kind of intra-party conflict only if they build their own mass, working-class-based organization, one that can unite and mobilize various constituencies around a broadly popular program.
As Alex N. Press wrote in Jacobin almost two years ago, “Given organized labor’s immense weakness, and Democrats’ failure to seize the moment at a time of complete ideological bankruptcy within the Republican Party, ‘pro-labor’ conservatives won’t be going away anytime soon.” Time has proven her correct. Marco Rubio’s fake populism isn’t unbeatable, but the first thing Democrats would have to do to defeat him is try.