Saturday, the National Journal noted that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, is starting to channel John F. Kennedy in his run for the presidency. Indeed, he has resurrected a phrase from the 1960 campaign, “New Frontier,” to describe what his presidency would attempt to accomplish in the quest to revive America from the doldrums of the Obama years. The phrase caught the attention of Robert Zubrin, a fervent advocate for Mars exploration and settlement. Zubrin posted on his Facebook page, “Rubio invokes ‘the New Frontier.’ We all know where that is. This could get interesting.”
Kennedy used the phrase “new frontier” in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles on July 15, 1960. The phrase encompassed a number of things Kennedy proposed to accomplish, not just in space.
“The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.
“Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink from that new frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric — and those who prefer that course should not vote for me or the Democratic Party.
“But I believe that the times require imagination and courage and perseverance. I’m asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age — to the stout in spirit, regardless of Party, to all who respond to the scriptural call: ‘Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be [thou] dismayed.’”
To be sure, Kennedy’s “new frontier” theme included the Apollo program to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. But it also included a lot of other Kennedy initiatives, some of which morphed into Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, an example of government overreach that proved to be a disaster the consequences of which America is grappling with to this day.
To be sure, a Republican version of “the new frontier” is not likely to include a lot of new social programs. Rubio, being from Florida, is well aware of the importance of a strong, well-funded space program to the power and economic vitality of the United States. However, thus far, Rubio has not revealed what exactly he does mean by “the new frontier.”
“’This election isn’t about what laws we’re going to pass. It’s about what kind of country we’re going to be,’ Rubio said to a packed Holiday Inn conference room. ‘And we’ve made that choice before. Asked six decades ago, this nation and that generation chose to embrace a New Frontier. In fact, they took up the challenge of a then young president who said, ‘Ask not what your country can do, ask what you can do for your country.’’
“’And here’s the hard truth,’ Rubio continued. ‘For far too long, leaders in both parties have been campaigning on the promise of what your government can do for you. But my campaign is built on the idea of what together we can do for America. Because America doesn’t owe us anything. But every single one of us, especially me, has a debt to this country we will never repay.’”
Rubio is trying to do two things at once.
First, like Kennedy, he is trying to frame the 2016 election as a contest of youth against age and all those two qualities implies. If he is nominated, Rubio will likely face Hillary Clinton in the general election. Clinton is already in her late sixties and will be in her seventies for most of her presidency. She is also a product of 1960s radicalism and had been a national figure for over 20 years. Her ideas can be seen as old and stale as she is.
Also, Rubio, who will be about the same age as JFK about the time he would take office, is trying to steal the mantle of one of the iconic figures of the Democratic Party. Kennedy is all but worshiped by Democrats and his administration has been compared to the legendary Camelot. But the reality of JFK, who believed in tax cuts, a space program, a strong military, and an aggressive stance against America’s enemies, tempered by diplomacy, is something that Democrats rejected long ago, Rubio will likely relish pointing this out.
But would a President Rubio launch America on a bold, new space effort? One would hope so, because “the new frontier” if anything is understood to mean the exploration and settlement of “brave new worlds” beyond the airless oceans of space. Perhaps, in the course of the campaign, Rubio will say that this will happen in his prospective presidency and, unlike Newt Gingrich, not allow the issue to be made a national joke.