It appears that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has a newfound appreciation for “false and reckless” myths about political leaders handing out free cellphones to minorities.
But he’s a little late to the game.
It would have been a real sign of character if Rubio made his stand for the truth on Oct. 31, when he shared the stage with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who warmed up the crowd for a Mitt Romney campaign appearance in Tampa.
Putnam was telling the audience how important it was to bring more Republicans to the polls than Democrats.
“You don’t have to offer them cellphones, like they’re doing,” Putnam said.
Putnam was trotting out the “ObamaPhone” line, a huge piece of fiction claiming that President Barack Obama had hatched some kind of nefarious plan to hand out cellphones to welfare recipients.
Rubio could have corrected Putnam right then, nipping that free cellphone nonsense right there on the spot.
After all, the Lifeline Program for Low-Income Consumers was started by the Federal Communications Commission in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan as a way to ensure safety and job opportunities for poor people by subsidizing the cost of their land-line phones.
President George W. Bush expanded that program to include cellphones in 2005. After President Obama was elected in 2008, some telecommunications companies began competing to sign up new subscribers, and then try to sell them extra minutes not covered by the government subsidy.
The companies marketed the plan as “ObamaPhones,” creating websites such as www.Obamaphone.net that offered free reconditioned phones to welfare recipients who signed up.
The government didn’t offer free phones. It continued to offer what it had in the past, a $10-per-month discount on the service.
The cellphone program didn’t become political fodder until a black woman at a political rally outside Cleveland gave a sidewalk interview that was posted on You Tube.
“Keep Obama in president,” she said in her mangled English. “He gave us a phone.”
The clip was catnip to the political right, the sort of stuff that buoys the hard-wired bigotry of the base.
Maybe if Rubio, a member of another minority group, had stood up to point out the false and reckless subtext of the ObamaPhone attack, Republicans would be doing less soul searching these days in how they can do better to appeal to minority voters.
But Rubio didn’t have his epiphany on false and reckless cellphone attacks until last week, when the immigration bill he helped craft with seven other senators was unveiled.
The political right quickly zeroed in on Section 1107 of the 844-page bill. That section called for the government to give grants for people living near the Mexican border to get free cellphones.
“Immigration Bill Contains MarcoPhones,” the Breitbart News headline read.
The Twitter hashtag #MarcoPhone became a clearinghouse for right-wing dismay that Rubio was giving away free cellphones to Mexicans crossing the border.
Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham questioned Rubio about it.
“A two-year grant program to receive a cellular phone,” Ingraham said. “And articles this morning, as you imagine, are fairly amusing. ‘Move over Obama Phone, this is the Amnesty Phone.’ ”
Rubio tried to explain.
“That’s not for the illegal immigrants,” Rubio said. “It provides communication equipment to people who are living in the border region so they can report illegal crossings, because many of them either don’t have phone service or don’t have cellphone service and they have no way of calling.”
His office put out a news release, trying to tamp down the “amnesty phone myth.”
Characterizing the cellphone provision in that bill as a “MarcoPhone,” and implying that it’s there to provide free phones to border jumpers is both ridiculous and poisonous.
And, just like the ObamaPhone nonsense, there’s a layer of bigotry at its core. After all, Rubio was just one of eight senators who wrote the immigration bill. Why not call the free cellphones “SchumerPhones” after Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, a political rival who was one of the main architects of the bill?
No, it’s the MarcoPhone because some in the political right can’t stand the thought of a bill that gives a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. And an effective way of poisoning the bill is to accuse their traitorous Hispanic senator of handing out free phones to Hispanic people crossing the border.
It’s really just another version of those same people who turned an existing 24-year-old federal program into a plot by a black president to give free phones to black people.
Welcome to your base, Sen. Rubio.
If it’s any comfort to you, some of the rest of us have have been disappointed by this behavior long before last Wednesday.