Marco Rubio has found religion. For most of last year, the Florida senator campaigned for president as a foreign policy expert and as a fresh-faced student of the high-tech economy. But to compete with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa and South Carolina, Rubio needs a family-values pitch. So, a month ago, Rubio began to spice up his stump speech with more talk of faith and morals.
Unlike Cruz, Rubio doesn’t enjoy conflict or feel comfortable demonizing others. He frets about being called a “bigot,” “homophobe,” or “chauvinist.” And he knows that legislating morality, particularly around sex, can drive many voters away. Rubio wants a kinder, gentler version of the culture wars. Toward that end, he’s developing a repertoire of words and phrases that repackage social issues in a less threatening way. Here’s a glossary of his favorite terms.
Cling. Rubio says President Obama despises conservatives who “cling to their guns and to their religion.” He’s right that Obama used that phrase in 2008. For Obama, cling meant that conservatives held fast to traditions in a time of economic turmoil and suffering. But for Rubio, cling means that while you’re trying to hold onto your values, Obama is trying to rip them away. According to Rubio, Obama is “obsessed with taking away religious liberty and the Second Amendment.”
Hateful. Ever since Donald Trump proposed a ban on Muslim refugees, Republicans have worried about appearing xenophobic. Rubio says that’s a bum rap. “If you say you want to limit or restrict the number of refugees that can come in, [liberals] say that that’s hateful,” he complains. But it’s not, he argues, because ISIS is trying to infiltrate the refugees. When you bar the refugees, you’re not being mean. You’re just being practical.
Hollywood. Thirty years ago, conservatives were accused of trying to censor music and movies. Rubio doesn’t want to come off that way. He wants to be a hip 21st-century guy. So he reverses the story: Pop culture filth is the aggressor, and Christians are just trying to shield themselves from it. “My wife Jeanette and I are raising four children in the 21st century,” he says. “And we have to work harder every year to instill in them the values that they teach in my church, instead of the values that Hollywood and the media [are] trying to ram down our throats.”
Judgmental. Rubio says leftists view “people with traditional values with great suspicion, as outdated, judgmental people,” as “people who look down on, or don’t like, people that aren’t like them.” He insists that this perception is false. His objection seems odd, since values are meant to be applied in judging behavior. But for Rubio, judgmental means looking down on others. It’s an attitude, not an evaluation. And it’s unseemly.
Love. According to Rubio, this is why conservatives want to keep out refugees: “You don’t lock your doors because you hate people on the outside. You lock the doors because you love the people on the inside.” This is a handy rationale for any kind of exclusion. Don’t feel bad about what you’re doing to Muslims. Feel good about what you’re doing for Christians.
Outdated. Rubio uses this term in conjunction with judgmental and hater. Example: “If you believe in traditional marriage today, you’re called bigot, an outdated hater.” This adds a fashion offense to the left’s unfair indictment of conservatives. Liberals aren’t just impugning your character. They’re saying something even worse: that you’re passé.
Respect, tolerance. “We’ve always been a tolerant people,” says Rubio. “But that also includes the opportunity to exercise your values, to teach them in your home and to live them in your life.” Respect, likewise, is a two-way street: “I respect people that disagree with me on certain things. But they have to respect me, too. Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot.” Rubio uses these terms not just to demand reciprocity, but to enlarge the space in which conservatives can apply their values. Liberals have to respect your right not only to live as husband and wife, but also to “define marriage” for everyone else in your state.
Stigmatize. “We have a society that stigmatizes those who hold cultural values that are traditional,” says Rubio. He complains that advocates of same-sex marriage “want to stigmatize, they want to ostracize anyone who disagrees with them.” By using these terms, Rubio casts conservatives as the true victims: It’s those intolerant homosexuals who are stigmatizing us for innocently objecting to their lifestyle.
Their own country. This is Rubio’s money phrase. He uses it in ads, debates, and speeches. “A growing number of Americans feel like outsiders in their own country, out of place in their own nation,” he lamented recently in South Carolina. In Iowa, he said: “They don’t recognize their own country anymore.” Officially, Rubio is talking about conservative Christians. Unofficially, the phrase resonates with whites who sense a diffusion of ethnic power. But the key term is country. It implies that you’re entitled to the company of a like-minded majority, not just in your home or your neighborhood, but in the whole United States.
Traditional values. In Rubio’s vocabulary, this is code for opposing gay marriage. Polls have turned against Republicans on this issue, so they need a term that makes the reference clear to conservative Christians but opaque to everyone else. Sometimes Rubio uses the term traditional marriage. Sometimes he drops the “marriage” part altogether.
War on women. Rubio has a hard-line position on abortion: He thinks it should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest. That seems harsh to many people, so he doesn’t talk about it. Instead, he complains, “If you’re pro-life, they say that you’re waging a war on women.” The real harshness, he implies, is coming from leftists who want to stir up a war with people who are guilty of nothing more than loving babies.
On the campaign trail, these terms work for Rubio. He’s plainly comfortable with them. For all his bravado about foreign policy and the use of force, he’s a nicer person than Cruz or Trump. In the course of sucking up to conservative Christians, he doesn’t want to alienate or offend secular Americans. He needs a moral vocabulary that’s sharp enough to get him through the Republican primaries but friendly enough to soften his edges in a general election. He’s off to a good start.
Katherine Kwok and Anna Weber provided research assistance for this article.