Rubio's Time?

As the Florida senator launches his White House bid, he seeks to rekindle the enthusiasm that greeted his early career.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
When Senator Marco Rubio formally declared his bid to succeed Barack Obama as president on Monday, it was only the latest link between their two careers. Both are ethnically distinctive, politically attractive, rhetorically gifted, and unusually intelligent. The point of this parallel is not aesthetic but analytical: to draw attention to a political culture that generates such resonantly similar careers. American presidential politics now is less determined by party; more by personal appeal, advocacy groups, ideologically fueled money, and extra-party vote-getting machinery. This is the context that made 2008 Obama’s Time, and may now make 2016 Rubio's Time.
In 1997, the 36-year-old Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate. In 2000, at the age of 29, Marcus Antonio Rubio was elected to the Florida legislature. Both moved up fast politically. In seven years, Obama went from state senator to United States senator. Four years into his first Senate term, he ran for and was elected president. Rubio entered the Senate in 2010, after a decade in the legislature. As his first term draws to its end, he seeks the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.  
Rubio became the first Hispanic speaker of the Florida legislature when he was 35. Even at so modest a level of public office, he created a stir. Newt Gingrich told him: "You are already having an impact." Jeb Bush publicly anointed him his political heir.  
Rubio combined solid Republican conservatism with bipartisan political rhetoric. He pledged to be driven by ideas, not ideology. Obama did much the same when he was gearing up for his 2008 presidential run. And like Obama, Rubio attracted attention not only for what he said but for how he said it. His "sharp rhetoric, self-deprecating jokes and a vibrant vision for the future" attracted the attention of the Sarasota Herald Tribune in 2007, which observed that he already sounded "like a presidential candidate."
Just as Obama was swept into the Senate by canny politicking, the tide of public opinion, and good fortune, so was Rubio. At stake was a Senate seat in a major state; and in both cases fresh-faced candidates nudged out initially stronger competitors.
A young, attractive, Hispanic Republican winning a Senate seat in a politically important state was bound to create a stir. Some 300 reporters covered him on election day; Time had him on its cover as a GOP national prospect. With the ballots hardly counted the Washington Post listed him among the ten top prospects for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
The common view was that Rubio was one of the Tea Party contingent that emerged in 2010 as the most dynamic new element in American politics. But a as Obama’s Florida campaign manager told The New York Times: "Rubio wasn't so much the Tea Party candidate as the candidate that the Tea Party embraced. It's like 2008. Did Barack Obama create the movement, or did the movement create Barack Obama?"  
Rubio underplayed the cosmic significance of his victory. No planets or tides changing course for him: "It's flattering and it's fleeting. Politics is full of one-hit wonders, of people that stood in a room like this with a bunch of cameras, and no one hears from them anymore. It's not going to go to my head."  
He was comparably clear-eyed in his view of the election's meaning. In his victory speech he warned: "We make a great mistake if we believe that tonight, these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party. What they are is a second chancea second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be, not so long ago."
Rubio made a muted entry into the Senate. A supporter said that he was not a show horse but a workhorse, appropriate for the newest and youngest member of that body. He conspicuously stayed out of the Tea Party caucus, whose Senate members included Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Jim DeMint. But his potential continued to attract attention. The Washington Post spoke of "the Rubio Factor" in GOP politics. John McCain called him "a superstar."
Preference polls in late 2012 and early 2013 put Rubio at the head of the pack of presidential possibles. Time called him "The Republican Savior," eliciting a characteristic response: "There is only one savior, and it is not me."
But then things began to go awry. The media fixed on more flamboyant GOP contenders. Rubio's poll standing steadily slid, leaving him sixth or seventh in the GOP pecking order.  The debate over illegal immigration and what to do about it is generally thought to be the primary cause of Rubio's fading prospects in the presidential sweepstakes. This was not an issue at the top of most Americans' political agendas. But it did weigh heavily with the more conservative segments of the GOP.
A "gang of eight" made up of four Senators from each party—Rubio conspicuous among them—sought in 2014 to come up with a comprehensive immigration law. Their measure passed the Senate with a solid 68-32 vote, including 14 Republicans: unusual in so polarized a political environment.
The bill initially strengthened Rubio's standing in the GOP Establishment. Media conservatives Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh reluctantly went along. Comprehensive immigration reform was favored in May 2014 by 71 percent of likely voters, including 64 percent of Republicans.  
But conservative criticism of the immigration bill burgeoned, fed by suspicion of Obama's intentions and integrity. Rubio vigorously triangulated on the issue. He now thought it best to reform immigration policy in stages: "We will never have the votes necessary to pass one bill." Better to secure the border and set up a more merit-based admissions system, and then take up the touchy topic of legalization.
But he steered clear of anti-immigrant rhetoric. "If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn't give me an opportunity to feed them,” he wrote, “there isn't a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here." His was, said Byron York, "an entirely new approach to the issue that has contributed to his rise, then fall, and perhaps rise again, in the Republican Party."
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Now that he has formally announced, can Rubio make his mark among the GOP crowd of candidates and restore his credibility with the party's conservative base? Al Cardenas of the American Conservative Union warned when his troubles began: "Marco...should continue to be a generalist.” Another columnist dubbed him “an Hispanic Reagan": not a judgmental, angry moralist but "a political evangelist showing that there is a better way."
Rubio set out to do precisely that. He took on a host of issues old and new, designed to broaden both his standing as a statesman and his appeal as a candidate. He kept buffing his signature vision: an America free and prosperous, open to opportunity, "a place where people are not left behind." He warned that the twentieth century models of strong government controlling the economy, and massive programs aimed at the needy, crowded out traditional American institutions, and weakened self-reliance and opportunity. Both parties, he thought, were responsible for this.
Most conspicuously, and it may be most presciently, he spoke out on foreign policy. He made a case for a "muscular middle ground." Doves and Hawks "come from the world of the past," from a "20th Century Cold War language that no longer applies."
Here is Rubio at his best: perceiving the importance of a large issue before most of his fellow-politicians, and adopting a thoughtful and widely acceptable approach—a "conservative nationalism"—whose political potential has steadily grown as the Obama administration's missteps accumulated.               
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What does history teach about how to respond to a political environment such as his—and ours? Don't go ideologically ballistic, á la Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, or Elizabeth Warren. Stay more in the backlight than the limelight; keep your political powder dry; be (as Rubio is) the most popular second choice. Discern what matters, and how things are trending; craft a message likely to have broad appeal. This is an apt description of what Rubio has been trying to do.
There is no great hurry. Early front-runners are likely to collapse under the lack of weight of their candidacies: Hillary in 2008; Santorum, Gingrich, Perry et al in 2012. The ups and downs of Christie, Paul, and Cruz are in that grand tradition. From this perspective, Rubio's recent eclipse may be a disguised blessing.   
But it is essential that he re-emerge as the candidate with the most promise among the GOP wannabes, and the most appeal to the larger electorate. What will this require?
First, he must be a bridge over, not a casualty of, the divides within the GOP. So far he has done a creditable job of adopting a prescient and plausible foreign policy stance. His call for a domestic agenda seeking growth and opportunity pleasantly contrasts with the sonorous emptiness of Obama's "Hope and Change" or Romney's "Forward" slogans. Joint legislative proposals with Democrats ranging from Bob Menendez to Elizabeth Warren give his bipartisanship a more substantive quality than Obama's my-way-or-the-highway version. And compared to the gyrating Paul, Cruz, and Christie, he is mature moderation itself.  
This is not 1964 or 1972, when domestic division over civil rights and Vietnam opened the door to the disastrous Goldwater and McGovern candidacies. It is more like 1952 or 1980 or 2008, when a tired presidency is approaching its sell-by date, and the nation is ready for an optimistic, healing, competent leader.
Rubio is not Eisenhower or Reagan. He lacks their decisiveness. His charisma, his moderate image, and his Hispanic identity are important, but cannot substitute for resolution. But as a Republican consultant observed, Rubio still had to show "that he has a core, that he is willing to take a tough stand and make tough political calls and let the chips fall where they may."  
Rubio's "Republican Obama" image has the benefit of conveying the youthful, with-it, unencumbered-by-the-past persona that served Obama so well. But it also brings unwanted baggage. The GOP party faithful now, and perhaps the general electorate in November 2016, may prefer seasoned, demonstrated competence to youthful promise. (But do either Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton fit that job description?)
With the conspicuous exception of Goldwater, the GOP has chosen candidates who by prevailing standards were centrist. This was as true in 1940-1948 (Willkie and Dewey) as in 1992-2000 (Dole, the Bushes) and 2008-2012 (McCain and Romney). Eisenhower and Reagan, the party's most notable modern presidents, succeeded not so much because of their conservatism as because of their capacity to heal and unite.   
The GOP, with its clunky public face, remains the less popular party. But not so its policies. Still, the candidate factor—if anything, more important in our populist political age than in the past—remains crucial. Without the right messenger, the message can readily get lost.
Can the case be made that Rubio fits the bill? After all, for the past couple of years he has been all but off the A-list candidate radar. One explanation might be that in reality he just doesn't have the goods—the charisma, the smarts, the appeal to the base. Another is that the media are drawn to more flamboyant (or vulnerable) candidates such as Christie, Cruz, Paul, or Walker.
There is a third possibility: that it has been Rubio's intent to stay as much as possible out of the day-to-day candidate rat race, and after the dust clears seek to emerge as the obvious, most attractive, last-man-standing choice.
You don't have to be Reagan to be Reaganesque. But you do have to be genuinely what you claim to be. Does Rubio fit the bill? As we historians like to say, time will tell.