Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is running for president and spoke with NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Monday ahead of his big announcement.
Rubio talked about how he hopes to stand out in the 2016 presidential field, Indiana’s religious freedom law, the president’s deal with Iran, immigration policy, and America’s warming relationship with Cuba.
STEVE INSKEEP: In all the years I’ve been interviewing people, I don’t think I’ve spoken with somebody on the day of an announcement like this. And I was thinking that if it were me, there might be a moment the night before where I was lying awake wondering if I was really ready for this. Did you have a moment of wondering if you were really ready for this?
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Not last night, but, I mean, if you reach the point where you’re wondering it the night before you announce, then you probably shouldn’t run. I think anyone who’s thinking about the highest office in the most powerful nation on earth has to spend some time analyzing whether they’re prepared for the job. And look, I think the job is perhaps the most difficult job in politics anywhere in the world. You’re the leader of the most powerful military on the planet. You make decisions that have global implications. And it’s happening at a time when the country’s going through an extraordinary economic transformation that is leaving many people insecure. But from all that and given both my experience at the local, state and federal level, and especially the lessons learned over the last five years as I’ve been engaged in federal policy making, I’m very confident that I have the judgment and the knowledge that I need to do a very good job as president of the United States. And clearly, as you see the history of the presidency, people who go into that office grow, the office helps you grow as well as you go through it and that’s, having the ability to learn is a big part of the office as well. But I’m certainly capable from day 1. I’m very confident that I have the capability from day no. 1 to lead this country.
Are you also affirming that you are not giving up your — are you also affirming that you are not running for Senate?
I am not. And the reason I think strongly about that is, if you’ve decided that you want to serve this country as its president, that’s what you should be running for. And I find myself in a situation where my Senate seat comes up for re-election at the exact same time as the presidency. And by Florida law, you can’t run for both, anyway. But to even be thinking about a Plan B in case this doesn’t work, I think diminishes your ability to succeed on the campaign because your mind will always be on, if this doesn’t work, then I can do something else. And the truth is that, you know, I don’t want to be in politics my entire life. And I’m prepared to serve this country now in its highest office and I’m excited about this opportunity.
You’ll be in a crowded Republican field. How do you expect to distinguish yourself from your opponents on the Republican side?
Well, I expect that I’m going to go out and tell people my vision for the future of this country. I’m going to be very specific and detailed about our plans and how we’re going to get there. In fact, I’ve done that already. We have a very detailed policy position that we’ve outlined on numerous issues over the last two years, culminating in my book that just came out earlier this year, American Dreams. And I think from that, voters are going to analyze the different position of the candidates, their capabilities, their history, but more importantly their view of the future and their plans to get us there and I’m very confident that that will lead to success.
Is there a sentence that people can have in their heads? Marco Rubio is different from the others because…
He has the clear view of how the 21st century can also be an American century.
We’re in a moment where you have put out plans proposing to reshape the way the federal government deals with federal assistance to the poor.
We’re in a moment where Jeb Bush, who may also run, has a superPAC called Right to Rise. And this week, of course, Hillary Clinton declared her campaign for the presidency talking about helping everyday people. What’s going on there?
Well, that’s a good thing for our country because equality of opportunity has always defined us as a people and as a nation. And the fact that there are millions of people now in America that are starting to have significant doubts about whether we’re still that kind of country should be deeply concerning to us. Our identity is at stake. Every country in the world has rich people. What makes America different is, we’ve had millions and millions of people who through hard work and perseverance are able to achieve happiness and upward mobility. And the fact that that’s in danger and in question is deeply concerning, and should be. It threatens our identity. So I’m glad that people are talking about it. Ultimately, talking about it won’t be enough. You have to have plans that work to help us address it. And for me it begins by embracing and acknowledging the reality that we are living through a massive transformation into this post-industrial 21st century economy that is both disruptive but also exciting. It comes not just with challenges, but also with opportunities. But we can only embrace those opportunities if we move forward on thinking about the changes we’re going to have to make in order to fully enter the 21st century.
What’s one way that your approach would be different from Jeb Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s?
Well, as far as the Republican field is concerned, there will be plenty of time for comparison shopping. The truth is, for voters, the truth is that at this moment most of my opponents in the field beyond talking about upward mobility have not clearly outlined what they would do. We have a clear policy outline on each of these issues that people can read about. And if, you know, all of my opponents and other candidates in the Republican field choose to adopt some of those ideas, I’ll consider that a victory as well as flattery. But on the Democratic side, I think, you know, Hillary Clinton is someone who’s deeply wedded to the institutions of the 20th century. Her plans are to spend more money on the existing higher education system. That system doesn’t work any more. It doesn’t work any more because we don’t graduate enough young people from high school ready to work. We need to do more of that — ready to work in trades as mechanics, airplane technicians and plumbers and engineers. These are good — welders. These are good 21st century jobs and we are capable of teaching people how to do that so at 18, 19 years of age, they can be employed. We also need to have more flexible, more flexibility in higher education for working Americans who can’t afford to drop everything and go to school full-time for four years. We need to have programs that allow someone who works full time to learn at their own pace, on their own time, so that a receptionist can become a paralegal, so that the home-health aide making $10 an hour can become a dental hygienist making $55,000 a year. And then we have to have more quality measures in higher education. For example, before you take out a student loan–
I have a bill that says every student, before you take out a student loan, needs to be told how much you can expect to make when you graduate from that school with the degree you’re pursuing so you can make an informed decision about whether or not it’s worth it to borrow a bunch of money for that degree.
A Florida political reporter noticed that you spent a plane ride sitting beside Jeb Bush, more than two hours, coming back from an NRA convention. Did you guys talk about the presidential campaign at all?
Not in great detail. Jeb and I are friends, we’ll always be friends. And I have tremendous admiration for him as a person, what he did as governor, and personal affection. And that’s not going to change. I don’t view, I’m not running against Jeb Bush and I’m not running against anybody in this field. I’m running because I strongly believe that I have something to offer this country that no one else in the field does at this moment in our history. And I’m going to go out there and do the best job that I can and — but, I mean, that’s not going to impact our relationship in any way that’s going to change how we feel about one another and it was great to see him and spend quality time just talking about good times and everything going on …
You didn’t talk politics very much at all?
… and everything in between. Sure, I mean we had observations about — we joked with a lot of the passengers who saw us sitting next to each other and we took some pictures with people and we told them, we warned them how historic a picture like that may be one day. And, um, but you know, we talked about the Masters, we talked about the Paleo diet, we talked about the Miami Dolphins. I mean it, we talked about, reminisced about old war stories from our time in the legislature, when I was in the legislature and he was governor. It was just a host of things.
Sooner or later if you go forward and he goes forward, there’s going to be a moment where you’re going to have to say, “Here’s why it should be me and not him.”
I don’t know. I mean, I think this year’s going to be quite different in that regard. We have a quality field of candidates who are going to be well financed and experienced, who are going to be running. And I think that’ll change the nature of the race. There’ll certainly be moments when others will try to draw distinctions. But in my mind, I’m going to talk about who I am and what I want to do. And I’ll let voters make the decision about who they think is best capable at this moment of leading our country.
You scheduled an announcement at Miami’s Freedom Tower, which has historic significance because Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s regime in the 60s and 70s received federal aid there. This brings to mind that you have strongly criticized President Obama’s restoration of relations with Cuba. If you’re elected, would you reverse that policy?
Absolutely, and I think the reason why is because I’m interested in, my interest in Cuba is freedom and democracy. I think the Cuban people, they are free, have the right to choose any economic model they want to follow. I don’t believe these changes will actually further democracy. In fact, I think they will make it harder to achieve. The goal of the Castro regime is to create the impression and the reality that their form of government is a legitimate form of government and set it in concrete. They know they have a generational challenge. Most of their top leaders are in their 80s. The actuarial tables tell you they don’t have much longer. And they want to leave in place global recognition for this form of government so that it can continue in perpetuity. And that means the Cuban people will never have the chance to experience what the people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti have, what the people in Mexico have, what the people in Peru have, what the people in Colombia have, which is free and fair elections. And that’s all I want for the people in Cuba. And I think U.S. policy towards Cuba is a major leverage point that we can use to help the Cuban people achieve freedom for themselves.
But help me think through this. The president made this announcement, they’re working on getting an embassy going at some point in the future. He went to Summit of the Americas where other countries in Latin America very much welcomed the restoration of relations. You’re saying that if you’re elected, you would close that embassy, you would break diplomatic ties, you would go back to the way things were?
We have an interest section in Cuba and it will continue to operate, but an embassy, I’m not, I don’t believe this country should be diplomatically recognizing a nation of the nature of Cuba. Obviously there are other dictatorships in the world that we have relations with by geopolitical reality. You know, China’s the largest country in the world, the second largest economy, the second largest military force. There are geopolitical realities there. Cuba is a brutal, tyrannical dictatorship 90 miles from the shore of our country. It is a nation that helps North Korea evade U.N. weapon sanctions. It is a country that harbors fugitives from American justice, including Medicare fraudsters and someone who killed a police officer in the United States. And I just think that we should have continued with the policy and perhaps looked for new ways of — continue with the policy of not recognizing that regime and not allowing them access to economic growth that would allow them to perpetuate themselves in power, and continue to search for ways to provide the Cuban people with more information about the reality of the world so they would be empowered to eventually create for themselves a democratic society.
You’ve also said that you would reverse the president’s deal with Iran, assuming that that is finalized. You said you would absolutely do that. What would that look like on day one?
Well, I would not adhere — well, we have to understand the deal, basically, can be what it is on paper. What the president is banking on is that he’s going to use a national security waiver to lift the sanctions on Iran, the economic sanctions that now exist. And we would simply re-impose the sanctions. And I still have tremendous questions about whether this deal’s even viable. The Iranians are now saying that what we’re saying the deal is and what they understand it to be are two different things. This issue of them asking for immediate relief of sanctions the minute the deal is signed is going to be a deal breaker. I hope it would be a deal break for this administration. And at the end of the day, we need to recognize that what Iran is trying to do here, and this is clear to anyone who has inside knowledge into this or has followed it closely, Iran is trying to maintain all the infrastructure they need to be nuclear capable without agreeing to any irreversible concessions. And that seems to be what they have achieved, if in fact this moves forward. So in my mind, we would just reinstitute the sanctions.
But I’m just thinking this through. The deal is made. It’s made not just with the United States, but with the European allies. Would you move forward with re-imposing sanctions even if the Europeans don’t go along with it?
Yes, it wouldn’t be as effective, obviously. We would, ultimately, I think, the Europeans are going to have a test anyway because the Iranians are going to violate the sanctions at some point. They’re going to evade it either by trying to take advantage of loopholes in the deal, or they’ll just flat out evade it because they’ve always had a secret component to their, to their program. And at that point, they’re going to have a huge test on their hands, which is, are they willing to live by the agreement that they even signed on to? But from the United States’ perspective, while we want our allies to join us in this endeavor, and certainly sanctions against Iran would be more effective were they in conjunction with our allies around the world, we have to look out for our own national security concerns. And in my mind, if the president wanted this to be a permanent deal that survived his presidency, he would have brought it to Congress.
I’m just thinking through further, though, as part of this deal, assuming it’s finalized, the Iranians get rid of a vast amount of enriched uranium, almost all they have. They limit the amount of enrichment that they will have. They limit the number of centrifuges they will operate and they will allow inspections for decades, actually. So you would say, all that, forget about it, it’s done.
They would retain all the infrastructure, first of all, they …
They retain infrastructure, sure.
They retain not only just infrastructure, they retain centrifuges, too. They may not be spinning them, but they will retain them in their possession. They continue to develop their long range missile capabilities, which are unstopped. There’s no prohibition on them acquiring a weapon design as they probably, may even already have. They continue to sponsor terrorism all over the world. In fact, now they’ll have more funding to pay for it, in places they already control, places like Beirut. They’re increasingly active in Yemen. Their hand and their role’s clear in Bahrain and in a growing number of places around the world. And they continue to be run by a radical Shia cleric who has apocalyptic views of the future and of their role in it. So none of these things change. Their infrastructure will remain in place and at some point, they could follow the North Korean model very easily, which is they can cook up an excuse for why they need to have a weapon program and move forward on it.
Is war inevitable then?
I hope not. My hope is that we can delay a program long enough and you would hope that there would be some sort of change in leadership in Iran that would at least allow them to decide that they would rather have an economy than have a weapon. You can’t guarantee it. But at the end of the day no one wants war, but I actually think that this deal could advance the prospects of war. I think this deal and the fact that Iran will retain nuclear infrastructure increases the likelihood that one of their neighbors may take action against them, whether it’s Israel or the Saudis or someone else. It also increases the likelihood now, that Iran becomes even more aggressive in its proxy wars that it’s conducting all over the world. It also increases the likelihood that they’ll increase their conventional capabilities threatening our U.S. presence in the region. And ultimately I think it almost guarantees an arms race in the region, because the Saudis have made very clear, and others, the Egyptians as well, that whatever Iran has, they’ll get as well. So if Iran is allowed to enrich to a certain level, they will begin doing the same, requiring a capability to do the same.
Let me ask about a domestic issue. In recent weeks, the state of Indiana passed a Religious Freedom law, which was interpreted by many as discrimination, by others, as protection for people who don’t want to take part in gay marriage. You defended the law and spoke about the hypothetical example of a florist who was asked to participate in a gay marriage and wanted to refuse. You said that person should have the right to follow their religious beliefs. Indiana, though, has since changed the law. Do you still support that concept?
Well, to be fair, I haven’t read the change in detail to give you an opinion on it specifically, but I’ll tell you where I stand. I don’t believe you can discriminate against people. So I don’t believe it’s right for a florist to say, I’m not going to provide you flowers because you’re gay. I think there’s a difference between not providing services to a person because of their identity, who they are or who they love, and saying, I’m not going to participate in an event, a same-sex wedding, because that violates my religious beliefs. There’s a distinction between those two things. So, certainly, you can’t not — it’s immoral and wrong to say, I’m not going to allow someone who’s gay or lesbian to use my restaurant, stay in my hotel, or provide photography service to them because they’re gay. The difference here is, we’re not talking about discriminating against a person because of who they are, we’re talking about someone who’s saying — what I’m talking about, anyway, is someone who’s saying, I just don’t want to participate as a vendor for an event, a specific event that violates the tenets of my faith.
What if two gay people get married and then they go that night to a hotel. Can the hotelkeeper refuse service to them?
That’s not part of an event. Again, I mean, that’s, there’s a difference between saying, we’re not going to allow you to stay in our hotel, common lodging establishment where people have a right to shelter, food, medical care, and saying we’re not going to, what we’re not going to do is provide services to an event, to an actual event, which is the wedding itself. And I think that’s the distinction point that people have been pointing to, and, because mainstream Christianity teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. People feel very strongly about that. And to ask someone to individually provide services to something of that nature, I think violates their religious liberty.
There’s a big question lurking here, which is that most Americans, according to surveys, now support gay marriage. A large minority of Americans still oppose gay marriage. The question is, that people seem to be wrestling with, is, what ground do opponents of gay marriage have left to stand on? What ground should they have to stand on?
First of all, if the majority of Americans support gay marriage, then you’ll see it reflected in changes in state law, which has always regulated marriage. And so at the end of the day, if a majority of people in any given state in this country petition their legislature to change the definition of marriage to include the marriage of two people of the same sex, that’ll be the law of the land. And that is what it is. Separate from that, there’s a constitutional protection of religious liberty that allows people to live by the tenets of their faith both in their public and in private life. That doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to go in and disrupt a gay wedding. But by the same token, it doesn’t mean that someone’s allowed to come to you and force you to be a participant in a ceremony that violates the tenets of your faith. And to be honest, in the real world, 99.9% of the time, a same-sex couple doesn’t want a florist or a photographer at their wedding that doesn’t agree with the choice that they’ve made. So we’re really talking about an issue that in large part is really not going to manifest itself in daily life, but in the instances that it does, there are individuals that don’t want to be compelled by force of law to participate in an event that puts them in the position of violating their religious faith. There’s a difference between that and discriminating against an individual because of who they are.
Are there are other specific situations on your mind where you feel that people who are opposed to gay marriage would need some kind of protection from, from it?
Well, I mean, that’s the one that’s in the news today. Again, I don’t, we can always sit here and engage in hypotheticals, this, that, and the other, but at the end of the day, I mean, that’s the one that’s emerged because there’s real cases behind people being fined for not providing services to a, to a ceremony as opposed to individuals.
When we spoke last year, we talked about immigration, an issue on which you worked for a time on an immigration reform bill. You said, first, the reason to do that is not political, it’s substantive. But, second, that there would be a political effect. That if the Republican Party deals with immigration, it would then have an opportunity to talk with Latino voters about other issues. And, of course, this is a voter group where Republicans have done very poorly in recent elections. Immigration hasn’t been dealt with. What are the likely consequences for the Republican party in 2016?
Well, again, every candidate has a different position on where they stand on the issue. From my perspective, I continue to believe it’s an issue we need to address. The only point I’ve made is that I think the lessons of the last couple of years, for me, is that we’re not going to be able to deal with it in one big piece of legislation. I still think we need to do immigration reform. I just don’t think you can do it in a comprehensive, massive piece of legislation, given the lack of trust that there is today in the federal government. I honestly believe that the key to moving forward on immigration is to first and foremost prove to the American people that we are going to bring future illegal immigration under control — that if we legalize 12 million people, they won’t be replaced by 12 million more who are here illegally. And I honestly believe, given my experiences on this issue now, that if we did that, the American people and the majority of Republicans and conservatives will be very reasonable and, and responsible about how we address the reality that we have 12 million human beings living in this country illegally.
But we’re in a circumstance, granted there’s still time, but we’re in a circumstance where it doesn’t look like immigration legislation is going to get through Congress before 2016. What does that mean for your party?
And I think, I think it’s nearly – well, I just outlined to you what I think the key is to moving forward. And I think that’s impossible as long as Barack Obama’s president now, because on two instances, particularly very recently, last year, he issued an executive order ordering federal agencies not to enforce immigration law. So if I’m telling you that the key to moving forward is the enforcement of immigration law, then that says the notion that future illegal immigration will be brought under control, and you have a president that’s ordering agencies not to enforce immigration law, our ability to convince people, no matter what we pass, that future illegal immigration will be brought under control, as long as Barack Obama’s president, is nil.
How do you keep from getting hammered on that in a general election where the Hispanic vote may be very important?
Well, I don’t know about the others, but I’ve done more immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did. I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill in a Senate dominated by Democrats. And that’s more than she’s ever done. She’s given speeches on it, but she’s never done anything on it. So I have a record of trying to do something on it. It didn’t work because at the end of the day, we did not sufficiently address the issue of, of illegal immigration and I warned about that throughout that process, as well, that I didn’t think we were doing enough to give that bill a chance of moving forward in the House.
Does your biography help?
I think biography’s part of all of our lives, all of our candidacies, because it certainly influences how you view the country and how you view issues. I have a personal attachment to the working class because it’s where I come from, it’s still the neighborhood I live in, it’s the people my children go to school with, it’s the community that I’m involved in. And, but I also happen to think it’s the identity of our country. And every candidate, you know, will bring to bear their experiences in life and how it’s guided them and influenced their thinking, but from my perspective, I think it matters simply because it informs me on my policy decisions.
There’s a big question here, also, because the Republican party, as many people have noted, faces a demographic challenge that gets a little worse with every election cycle. Growing groups in society, such as Latinos and others, are voting increasingly Democratic, and Republican voter groups, particularly older white voters, are getting smaller. What’s the Republican Party need to do about that?
Well, at the end, I don’t think people go to the ballot box and say, I’m a Latino, therefore I’m voting Democrat. I think they bring with them their hopes and fears about the future, and they vote for whoever they think best understands them. And the challenge the Republican Party has had is unfairly, but it’s the reality, they’ve been portrayed as a party that doesn’t care about people who are trying to make it. A disproportionate number of people who are trying to make it, who are working class, who are out there working for a living at $18 an hour, $15 an hour, happen to also be people from minority communities. And if you think someone doesn’t care or understand people like you, no matter what your policies are, it’s going to be difficult to get them to listen to you, much less vote for you. And so I hope the Republican Party can become the champion of the working class because I think our policy proposals of limited government and free enterprise are better for the people who are trying to make it than big government is. The fact is that big government helps the people who have made it. If you can afford to hire an army of lawyers, lobbyists and others to help you navigate and sometimes influence the law, you’ll benefit. And so that’s why you see big banks, big companies, keep winning. And everybody else is stuck and being left behind.
So you’re beginning this gigantic game of Survivor with who knows how many other candidates. You’re smiling as I say that. With who knows how many other candidates, what will determine who survives ultimately and how will you make sure it’s you?
Well, there are basics about any campaign. Obviously you’ll have to put time into it, you’ll have to be able to raise sufficient funds to communicate your message. And on a daily basis, you have to make sure you do the best you can to help convince people in a crowded field that you’re the best person at this time for the job that you seek. But beyond it, I really think the key is, who can inspire our country into believing that the future doesn’t have to be worse than our past, that the 21st century can be better than the 20th. And then once you’ve inspired them to believe that, showing them how we can accomplish it. And I feel very confident in our ability to do it and I think that’s why we’re going to win.
Should I think of this as an insurgent campaign, because you don’t have the resources of Jeb Bush, particularly?
Well, I think our resources will be sufficient to do the job we’re trying to do. At the end of the day, this is not a fundraising competition in and of itself. You also have to have a message and a messenger and a policy outline that proves to people that, that your campaign is better for them than what someone else is offering. But I’m certainly not the frontrunner and — but that’s O.K. The election isn’t tomorrow.
What are you doing to make sure you don’t run out of money?
(Laughs) We’re going to, we, we’re trying to raise as much money as we can and that’s important. As long as the media outlets keep charging us for advertising, we’ll have to keep raising money.
Senator Rubio, thanks very much.