If you’d asked me which former tea-party star would be the first to embrace full communism, I wouldn’t have guessed Marco Rubio.

Nah, just kidding. Of course I would have.

Once he got a taste for regulating guns, he was lost to us forever.

“Government has an essential role to play in buffering this transition,” he says. “If we basically say everyone is on their own and the market’s going to take care of it, we will rip the country apart, because millions of good hardworking people lack the means to adapt.” Economic liberty, in this retelling, becomes something the government is required to guarantee. It is the freedom to enjoy “the dignity of work”, says Mr Rubio. “There needs to be a conservative movement that addresses these realities.” . . .

Mr Rubio’s proposal, to double the tax credit to $2,000 per child and pay for it by making a small increase to the corporate rate his party wanted, was decried by some Republicans as socialism. The watered-down version they accepted, as the price of Mr Rubio’s support for the bill, excluded the poorest families. “There is still a lot of thinking on the right that if big corporations are happy, they’re going to take the money they’re saving and reinvest it in American workers,” he says. “In fact they bought back shares, a few gave out bonuses; there’s no evidence whatsoever that the money’s been massively poured back into the American worker.”

“I spent a tremendous amount of time focused on the opportunities I had as the son of a bartender and a maid in the past century,” Rubio said of his presidential campaign pitch two years ago. “I didn’t spend nearly enough time talking about what the bartender and the maid face today.” Dude, he’s gone full populist.

Well … not really. When he calls for Trump to make the wall 50 feet high, then he’ll have gone full populist.

His argument here, in a word, is “crumbs.” Corporations got a massive tax cut, their employees got a few token bonuses and not much else — precisely the point that Nancy Pelosi, among others, has spent the last few months making. I know one guy on Twitter who’s so excited about Rubio’s criticism of the tax bill that he’s tweeted about it no fewer than four times today:

That’s Chuck Schumer’s communications director. Schumer’s office actually put out a press release this morning touting Rubio’s comments. How often does a Republican senator hand the Democratic majority leader a soundbite worthy of amplifying, especially six months out from a midterm? That’s the nicest thing he’s done for the left since, ah, last month, when he vowed not to campaign for Rick Scott against his Democratic colleague, Bill Nelson — even though control of the Senate may well turn on the outcome of that race.

What game is Rubio playing? Or is he playing a game at all? Remember, he tangled with leadership in December over the tax bill because he wanted the child tax credit for poor families to be larger. At one point he even threatened to tank the bill if McConnell didn’t comply. He won that fight, sort of. The credit was expanded but only modestly, which is less due to McConnell’s stinginess than to the realities of trying to hold together a razor-thin majority that includes dogmatic conservatives who frown at the idea of tax credits on principle. The point, though, is that Rubio was willing to make a minor fuss to “pour back into the American worker.” It’s not just talk.

The easy (and probably accurate) read is that he’s already thinking about 2024 and where the party’s likely to be. He’ll never be the populist choice in the primaries, particularly given the suspicions about his immigration policies after the Gang of Eight, but there are things he can do to make himself less offensive to populists and more appealing to the general electorate. Being the “blue-collar champion” among prominent Republicans is one thing. I don’t want to sell him short, though, by dismissing his interest in this subject as purely electoral. Rubio has always been suspect among doctrinaire righties for not being as doctrinaire as he was cracked up to be when he emerged as a star in 2010. He surfed the tea-party wave to victory that year; dogmatic conservatism was the path to populist support so he took that path and pulled a momentous upset in Florida. But even then, Rubio was cautious about not letting himself be too closely identified with the tea party. He didn’t thank them by name in his victory speech, the way a Ted Cruz might have. He’s always been more center-right domestically, most famously on immigration but not just on immigration, as today reminds us.

I think the Trump presidency has liberated him a bit in that regard. It feels strange to say that given how bitterly Rubio criticized POTUS during the primaries but Trump gave him a political gift by severing the connection between dogmatic conservatism and populism. Rubio’s not going to take nearly as much damage for his departures from conservative orthodoxy now as he would have even four years ago so long as errs in the direction of populism and, most importantly, remains on Trump’s good side. He has freedom to maneuver legislatively that he’d never have had under, say, President Cruz or even President Hillary. Now he needs to cross his fingers and hope that Trump doesn’t turn on him for badmouthing his big tax cuts win.