Marco Rubio Tries to Reclaim His Conservative Bona Fides

At CPAC, the junior senator from Florida blows softly on the embers of his candidacy, avoids stepping on rakes.

National Journal

The entrenched wisdom around Marco Rubio for some time now has been that his star has fallen. After committing the sin of pushing a bipartisan immigration-reform bill through the Senate that included a path to legalization, the tea-party movement had largely abandoned him.

Rubio's political demise was well received by the media, which gleefully documented his decline. It was also good news for Chris Christie, who, in the lingering twilight before Bridgegate, had inherited Rubio's crown of "passionate and compassionate" conservative who might actually win a general presidential election.

In his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, Rubio showed signs of reclaiming the mantle of viable centrist Republican candidate, telling an enthusiastic crowd that America had entered a period of "extraordinary economic insecurity," bashing President Obama on foreign policy and accusing his administration of engaging in class warfare with regard to its message of economic opportunity.

"They resort to what the Left always resorts to," Rubio told a packed ballroom, "dividing people against each other. More than any other administration in modern American history, they go to Americans that are struggling and they tell them, 'The reason you're worse off is because someone is doing too well. It is someone else's fault that you're going through these difficult times and the only solution is to give government more power to go after those people.' "

He went on to criticize the president on foreign policy, holding up China, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and Russia as examples of places where American engagement is needed but currently lacking. "What do all these countries have in common?" Rubio said. "These are totalitarian governments. All the problems of the world, all the conflicts of the world are being created by totalitarian regimes who are more interested in forcing people to do what they want to do then in truly achieving peace and prosperity."

There is "one nation that can stand up to them," Rubio added, and that is America. "The United Nations cannot do this," he said to applause. "In fact, they cannot do anything."

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The tone and substance of the speech aligns with Rubio's recent pivot to win back the hawkish wing of the Republican Party with his firm stances on foreign policy, a stark contrast to Rand Paul's isolationism. Earlier this week Rubio was out beating the drum against Venezuela and Russia, arguing the Obama administration must not appear weak in the face of Russia's aggression in Ukraine and the mounting Venezuelan government's crackdown against its own people.

Some say Rubio has been playing the long game all along. Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona who partnered with Rubio on immigration reform, recently told reporters he thought Rubio would benefit from his serious, substantive approach to the issues.

"Winning the presidency is about winning a general," Flake said, "not just a primary."