Rubio Is Trying to Win Conservatives by Promising to Rig the Game

Why the Florida senator is backing that strange proposal to hold a constitutional convention. 

Marco Rubio supreme court.
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a rally on Jan. 6, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Marco Rubio needs conservatives, or at least, the deep red voters who are currently parked behind his immediate rival, Sen. Ted Cruz. Without them, he’s stuck in the middle of the pack, and far behind in states like Iowa, where those conservatives dominate. But Rubio is in a bind. He’s running as a conservative who can win, with a campaign aimed at the general election. Which means that he has to temper his rhetoric; he can’t indulge the red meat and factionalism of candidates like Cruz without risking his appeal as the most electable Republican in the race.

Instead, he has to send quiet signals and speak to more esoteric concerns. And last week, he did as much with a pledge to put “the weight of the presidency” behind a constitutional convention. “One of the things I’m going to do on my first day in office is I will put the prestige and power of the presidency behind a constitutional convention of the states,” said Rubio at a recent campaign stop in Waterloo, Iowa. “You know why? Because that is the only way that we are ever going to get term limits on members of Congress or the judiciary and that is the only way we are ever going to get a balanced-budget amendment.”

First, some background. Under Article V of the Constitution, two-thirds of states can apply to Congress to convene a constitutional convention. Overall, scholars agree that the states would have to draw boundaries on the scope of the gathering. This process is so difficult that it’s never happened. And in general, calls for constitutional conventions have always lived on the fringes of American life, like in the 1960s, when some conservatives called for a convention to overturn liberal Supreme Court decisions. The most mainstream movement for a convention was to draft and pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s and ’80s. Thirty-two states supported it—two votes short of the 34 needed to succeed.

With that said, calls for a convention have gained a little more traction in the past five years. On the left, a small group of scholars and activists want a new convention to limit the power of money in politics. On the right, a larger and more influential group of activists want a convention to craft new amendments for term limits and a balanced budget amendment.

Rubio is speaking to the latter, and they like what they hear. “Rubio endorses Convention of States,” tweeted conservative radio host Mark Levin, an advocate for the move. “Will the other GOP contenders support it as well?” Likewise on Twitter, Mark Meckler, former Tea Party leader and president of a group advocating for the convention, said Rubio could earn conservative support with this move, calling it a “game-changer” for his campaign.

Rubio isn’t moving this initiative to the center of his campaign, so it won’t be a game-changer. But it could help on the margins, and convince a few skeptical conservatives that the Florida senator is on their side.

With that said, we should step away from the horse race aspect of this and note the extent to which everything here is a bad idea. A successful constitutional convention requires a level of consensus and judicious thinking that doesn’t exist in modern American politics, at least not in great quantities. And this is underscored by the nakedly ideological demands for term limits and balanced budgets. The former robs Congress of experience and expertise, and empower actors—lobbyists and interest groups—who have the time and money to fill the gap. The result isn’t more accountability—it’s a weaker legislature that can’t think beyond the short-term. And a balanced budget amendment is just a recipe for disaster, tying the government’s hands in the face of wars and economic crises. As ideas, they are more about sentiment—we want to shrink government—than they are about solving problems.

On that score, it’s worth noting that this renewed push for both measures comes at a time the United States is becoming younger, browner, and more liberal. For a movement whose electoral health is tied to an aging population of white conservatives, it’s increasingly now or never for right-wing ideologues, or at least, moves that block liberals from achieving their goals. The sense that the moment is slipping explains why, on a different bank of the Right, conservative legal scholars are pushing a return to the pre-New Deal Lochner regime.

If winning national elections is difficult given your shrinking coalition—and if that coalition is the main constituency for movement conservative ideology—then the next best option is to change the rules of the game. A constitutional convention is one way to reach that goal. The other, should you win the White House, is a well-placed judicial appointment.