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Marco Rubio Wants to Be a Republican Wonk. He's Failing.

Getty Images/Andrew Burton

Senator Marco Rubio really wants to be a wonk. Over the past few months, he has given major speeches on a new antipoverty agenda and on reforming Social Security. At Hillsdale College Wednesday, he made yet another one, this time on economic security and opportunity. Many of the ideas Rubio outlines have merit, but they often face a problem that neither he nor the Republican Party is ready to admit: If they mean giving more money to one group of people, they mean taking money away from somebody else.

Rubio’s new antipoverty agenda would, among other things, reform the Earned Income Tax Credit into a very similar program, called a wage subsidy, and allow childless, low-income workers to collect benefits similar to those of working parents. President Barack Obama shares a similar goal, because the EITC currently offers very little to childless workers. But Rubio has also said it will be deficit neutral. That would mean he has to cut benefits for working parents who use the program already. Rubio has insisted he doesn’t want to do that, either—but that just creates a mathematical impossibility. He wants to pay one group more, keep payments for other groups at current levels, and do all of that without increasing its overall cost.

It appears that Rubio’s vision for education reform suffers from the same problem. And it got him into trouble Wednesday morning, during an appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box where he previewed his Hillsdale speech. The four-minute mark is where the action really gets going:

Rubio proposes allowing high school students the option to split their time between classes and technical training. "That includes allowing people to graduate from high school with industry certified life skills so you can go to work right away,” he told the Squawk Box crew. Host Becky Quick asked the obvious follow-up question: “Who pays for this?” And then Rubio’s struggles began:

Rubio: We spend more money per student in this country than any nation on earth. The money exists already. The question is whether we're going to offer those programs.

Quick: Where do you take the money from?

Rubio: Well you don’t have to take the money. You have to repurpose the money.

Quick: Something loses in that scenario. What is it?

Rubio: Absolutely not.

Quick: That’s where you get into these fights with higher education all the time and with lower education.

Rubio: No, I don’t believe that’s accurate at all. We have an existing pool of money that is primarily generated at the state level. It is poured into a mid-20th century education model that basically says you will either graduate with a high school diploma and try to find a job or you’re going to go to college.

Quick: But Senator the devil is in the details. I agree with you 100 percent, but where do you take the money from to come up with all of this?

Rubio: I disagree with your premise. I fundamentally disagree with your premise.

Quick: It has to come from somewhere.

Rubio: What makes you think it costs more money?

Quick: If you’re saying the money needs to be reallocated, where are you reallocating it from?

Rubio: From the existing programs that they’re now in.

Finally! Quick had to ask five different times before Rubio would explain that the money is coming from existing education programs. Quick and host Andrew Ross Sorkin both pointed out that teachers would oppose such a change, since it would be taking money from their programs (and, thus, their jobs). Rubio played dumb, unless he truly didn’t realize the implications: “Why would teachers lose in the equation?” He tried to explain that his reforms would simply shrink classroom sizes as some students opt for technical training and others continue with their traditional education. But this misses the point. If school districts allocate money for technical training, that leaves less money for teachers. Over time, Rubio might argue that his plan would make the education system more efficient and save on costs—and he might even be right. But the short-term impact, one way or another, would be to take jobs from teachers.

This is the fundamental problem for Rubio and his fellow travelers in the Republican Party. By insisting all programs remain deficit neutral, and then refusing to raise taxes, they are forcing spending cuts to offset any new initiatives. And those cuts are going to create losers, just as surely as new spending might create winners.

In principle, that’s OK. The Affordable Care Act created winners (low-income, unhealthy, young Americans) and losers (high-income, healthy, old Americans). That doesn’t make it bad policy. The same goes for Rubio’s ideas. But if he is not willing to admit that such a tradeoff exists in the first place, then he cannot fill the role of Republican wonk that he so clearly wants.