On the last night of the Koch brothers’ secretive donor retreat in June, wealthy conservatives sat down to the “Immigrant Experience” dinner, as it was dubbed internally. Usually Charles Koch delivers “the final battle cry,” a Koch operative told the audience. But this year the closing speech was given by a special guest: Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida and prospective 2016 presidential candidate.
An audio recording of the event, obtained by The Undercurrent and reported exclusively here, reveals that what Rubio offered was less a battle cry than a safe homage to the American Dream, laced with anecdotes of ordinary people being crushed by big government: the person “trying to start a business out of the spare bedroom,” who can’t afford to “hire all the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington” to help him skirt regulations; the single mother who can’t afford a professional degree because Democrats keep “pouring money into a broken and stagnant higher education cartel.”
Rubio said little to surprise or offend. (A full transcript is here.) Still, the event illustrated the close relationship between the senator and the Koch brothers, who gave more money to Rubio in 2010 than to any other candidate for national office outside of their home state, Kansas. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed Super PAC, was one of the groups that gave Rubio cover from the political blowback that followed his endorsement of the Senate’s immigration reform bill. In turn, Rubio has supported the Kochs’ agenda by spreading skepticism about climate change science and by advocating for other antiregulatory policies that would boost the Kochs’ bottom line. He is one of only five senators who have earned a perfect score for their voting record from AFP.
As the billionaires dined, Rubio served up the right’s favored explanation for poverty. “I know for a fact, and so do you, that perhaps the leading cause of poverty in America today is the breakdown of communities and American families,” he said. He complained that the tax code “punished family life” and condemned safety net programs “that punish people and keep them from getting married”—presumably a reference to tax penalties incurred by some married couples.
“We need to help families with the cost of living, and that means healthcare,” he said vaguely, before immediately moving on to a curt dismissal of the Affordable Care Act: “I’m not going to spend a lot of time preaching to this choir about Obamacare.”
Rubio critiqued his own party lightly for its public relations strategy:
The problem we’ve had on the right for too long is we have not shown people how our principles of limited government and free enterprise apply to the challenges of the 21st century. And so why I’m so proud to endorse candidates like Cory Gardner [who is running the Senate in Colorado], and Joni Ernst [Iowa], and Tom Cotton [Arkansas], is because they fully understand the need that our country has to restore this agenda…. perhaps more than anything else that I think we have failed to do is to convince people that big government doesn’t hurt the people who have made it.
Rubio didn’t articulate many specific policy points, but he did highlight his education reform agenda, which includes a school vouchers and changes that, purportedly, would make higher education more “accessible”:
There’s all sorts of ways to learn in the 21st century—masters online courses, community colleges. You should be able to get credit for life experience and work experience. You should be able to package all these things into the equivalent of a degree, but we can’t because only accredited colleges can give degrees. And guess who accredits colleges? The accredited colleges…who don’t want any competition from anyone else.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for an overhaul of the way that the United States accredits postsecondary schools. But proposals advanced by Rubio and other Republicans would allow states to gut quality controls for higher education—which aren’t very strong to begin with, as the rise of predatory for-profit colleges illustrates.
That would be a win for people seeking to extend corporate influence via academia—namely, the Koch brothers, who have funded a variety of efforts to place libertarian ideology in high school and college curriculum. Spreading the free market gospel would be much easier, and cheaper, for the Kochs if they could simply offer their own accredited courses—which students could pay for with federal loans—instead of having to endow faculty positions at traditional universities. (This isn’t that far-fetched: in 2013, the Florida legislature opened the door for the state’s universities to award credit for courses developed, taught, and graded by corporations.)
Rubio also attacked the president’s directive to the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants. “I promise you, though, what this president just did by executive order is going to raise her electric bill,” Rubio said, referring to a Florida woman named Christine whose “utility is very coal dependent.” While there’s plenty of debate about how the rule will affect consumers, aggressive carbon regulation certainly would hurt the Kochs, whose empire is built on a carbon footprint that is by one estimate 100 million tons a year.
Ironically, one thing Rubio said nothing about during “The Immigrant Experience” was immigration reform. Rubio was introduced by César Grajales, the South Florida field director for the LIBRE initiative, a Koch-funded campaign to attract Latino voters to the GOP. Rubio’s former campaign manager, Jose Mallea, is the group’s national strategic director. LIBRE reaches out to Latinos by offering social services, such as free tax preparation, health checkups and a GED course. But the effort is really focused on selling conservative ideology—or, as Grajales put it in his introduction, giving Hispanics “access to the truth.”
LIBRE appears to believe that Hispanics need “truth” more than healthcare or relief from a broken immigration system. Instead of pressing Republicans for comprehensive immigration reform, which LIBRE claims to support, the group has spent millions on ads attacking Obamacare supporters. Meanwhile, Latinos are more likely to be uninsured than any other group in the US, and they’ve lagged behind others in enrollment in the new insurance exchanges.
Charles Koch wrapped up the evening by thanking “Marco” for “all he’s doing to try to preserve and enhance our free society.” He spoke about the need to build a movement “of people who will act or are dedicated to act, who don’t just give lip service, but are willing to dedicate themselves to our free society, and to making it better and better, whatever the cost to them personally.”
He went on,
And this is absolutely critical because to me what’s going to determine the future of this country is the balance of people who are willing to act to affect the future of this country. And if the majority of those people are collectivists, we are doomed. So we have to be much more aggressive in identifying, recruiting, educating, and mobilizing those people who will be willing to act on behalf of our free society.