Rubio emerges as GOP star, but is he the answer for Republicans?
FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the Newseum in Washington. In an opinion piece published Sunday Jan. 27, 2013 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Rubio wrote that the existing system amounts to "de facto amnesty," and he called for "commonsense reform." (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)
Lately, it seems just about everyone is fascinated by the junior senator from Florida.
Time’s current cover proclaims Marco Rubio “The Republican Savior.” The website BuzzFeed last week solicited his views on immigration, climate change, gay rights – and the relative artistic merits of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. That test of his hip-hop fluency came after Rubio released a Spotify playlist of 16 songs he is listening to, generating a flood of instant analysis in the blogosphere.
Next up: Tomorrow night, Rubio will give the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address – in English and Spanish.
“He carries our party’s banner of freedom, opportunity and prosperity in a way few others can,” House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said in announcing Rubio’s selection to deliver the rebuttal. Republican uber-strategist Karl Rove has called Rubio “the best communicator since Ronald Reagan.”
Rubio is indeed a politician of unusual gifts. But the spotlight that has fallen on this relatively new arrival to the national scene says as much about the state of the Republican Party as it does about the 41-year-old senator. And it remains to be seen whether he represents the solution to the GOP’s problems, or whether the party’s sky-high hopes in an untested newcomer are just another measure of its drift.
His appeal starts with the fact that Rubio embodies two demographic groups with which the GOP needs to connect: young people and Hispanics.
And he has been trying to add substance to his sizzle. Rubio, in the first high-profile tryout of his legislative skills, is taking a leading role in shaping an overhaul of immigration law.
He is part of a bipartisan group of eight senators who put together a carefully calibrated set of principles that include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million-plus immigrants in this country illegally. Rubio is the group’s point man tasked with selling that idea to the hard-liners on the right, who see it as heresy.
Rubio declined to be interviewed for this article. Aides explained that Rubio wants to dial things back a bit between now and the State of the Union response. When the Time cover appeared, he tweeted: “There is only one savior, and it is not me. #Jesus.”
“Like most things in politics, we are keenly aware of how fleeting this all is and how most news hype is all sound and no fury,” said Rubio’s senior strategist, Todd Harris. “You run the risk of becoming overexposed and overserved, not to mention the fact you might screw up.”
Rubio’s new prominence also comes at a difficult time for his party. Schisms have developed within the GOP as it searches for a path out of the electoral badlands after two presidential defeats.
He is that rare Republican who is beloved by both the party establishment, which is focused on reaching out to centrist and independent voters, and by the anti-establishment insurgent forces who say the party has erred in not holding true to its most conservative principles.
The Florida senator argues for both. Admirers often point to his 2011 declaration that “we don’t need new taxes. We need new taxpayers, people that are gainfully employed, making money and paying into the tax system.” It neatly skirted the charge, prosecuted to great effect by Democrats, that Republicans were simply favoring the rich.
“Marco Rubio has an unerring ear for how to frame a conservative argument,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Just listen to the way he frames an argument and you will hear a very different argument than we have heard in recent years.”
That is a quality people have seen in Rubio since the beginning of his political career.
“When I came back from my first session, I can remember saying, ‘He’s the pick of the litter.’ He really separated himself from his Republican colleagues,” said Dan Gelber, who was the Democratic minority leader in the Florida House of Representatives while Rubio was speaker. “He navigates nuance as well as anyone you’re going to meet in this world. He has very good political instincts.”
His selection to give the State of the Union response marks a departure for Republicans, who in recent years have turned more toward such technocratic and wonky figures as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Indiana’s then-governor, Mitch Daniels, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
It can be a tricky assignment to follow the grandeur of a presidential address to all the assembled powers of Washington. Jindal’s tinny 2009 performance, for instance, was so widely panned that a Facebook group was set up comparing Jindal to the childlike, unsettlingly cheerful Kenneth character on the TV show 30 Rock.
Meanwhile, Rubio’s future is the source of intense speculation in political circles. It was stoked when he headlined a political fundraiser in Iowa – site of the first 2016 presidential nomination contest – just days after the Republicans’ 2012 presidential defeat.
“From the time that Marco served as my Florida chairman during my presidential campaign, I felt that he was very much the future of our party,” said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, one of the earliest Republicans of national stature to back Rubio’s 2010 Senate bid. “I have said since I met him: ‘Keep your eye on this guy. He’ll be president someday.’ ”