When Barack Obama announced he was running for president after only serving 768 days in the Senate, there was a lot of skepticism about whether a newly minted lawmaker would be up to the task of running the country.
But in the 2016 cycle, there are plenty of Republicans who are emulating Obama's strategy. Freshman Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, and now Marco Rubio of Florida are banking that their records in the Senate are enough to convince voters that they are ready for executive office.
Rubio has been especially strategic about discrediting the etiquette that freshmen senators should be seen and not heard. He's learned the hard lessons about the political costs of building coalitions by pushing for a comprehensive immigration bill, he's managed to find his way onto plum committees like foreign relations and intelligence, and he's managed to embody the Republican Party's message of upward mobility merely by reciting his own family's story.
In the lead-up to 2016, here are the moments that made Rubio more than just another freshman senator.
Rubio's position in the "gang of eight" was the most significant and grueling legislative test he has faced in the Senate. The bill—which passed the Senate, but stalled in the House—forced Rubio to work alongside Democrats such as New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, and go on record in supporting a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. What began as an opportunity for Rubio to prove himself as a bipartisan negotiator and a GOP bridge to the Hispanic community quickly spiraled out of his control as he faced criticism from his right flank for supporting a plan some viewed as "amnesty."
In many ways, Rubio's oft-cited story of his parents immigrating from Cuba made him a perfect vehicle for the Republican Party to tackle the contentious issue and gain political support from Hispanics. But while Rubio's involvement may have helped him shore up their support in a general presidential election, it only aggravated the base voters who would be essential to his rise in a GOP primary. Rubio was blasted by conservative pundits such as Erik Erickson and Ann Coulter for "playing right into the hands of President Obama and Democrats."
Rubio eventually attempted to distance himself from the legislation. And in recent months, he has railed against the president's immigration executive actions, which shield many immigrants from deportation.
The Venezuela floor speech
It wasn't Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan—countries with which the U.S. has long been entangled in conflicts—that put Rubio's foreign policy muscle on the map and helped him get his groove back after the immigration bill. Instead, it was a stirring speech Rubio delivered on repression in Cuba and Venezuela that caught the attention of Republican strategists and brought him back from conservative exile to potential GOP nominee.
On Feb. 14, 2014, Rubio delivered a tough 14-minute speech on Venezuela that even surprised his staff. According to a report from Buzzfeed, the speech was supposed to simply be a way for Rubio to reach out to constituents back home with ties to Venezuela. But when Rubio brought his blown up photographs of Venezuelan repression to the floor and heard Sen. Tom Harkin applauding Cuba's health-care system, its baseball tradition, and high literacy rate, Rubio saw a chance to elevate the address:
"If America and its policymakers are not going to be firmly on the side of freedom and liberty, who in the world is? Who on this planet will? If this nation is not firmly on the side of human rights and freedom and the dignity of all people, what nation on the Earth will?," Rubio said. "And if we're prepared to walk away from that, then I submit to you that this century is going to be a dangerous and dark one."
The speech won Rubio praise from some of his toughest conservative critics. Rush Limbaugh said Rubio "nailed it," and his delivery made his floor speech against communism one of the most impactful "since the days of Reagan."
Just hours after the Obama administration's December announcement that it would begin restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, Rubio held a press conference in the Senate to confront the administration in which he said the administration was turning down a dangerous road.
"I know the Cuban regime and its true nature better," Rubio said.
For Rubio, the U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba set up a perfect contrast between him and the president. While Rubio has often been hawkish on everything from ISIS to Iran, few in the Senate are as well positioned to speak out on Cuba as him.
Rubio's outspokenness on Cuba serves both his constituents and his presidential ambitions. And Rubio has been able to use his position as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women's to bring even more attention to himself as an Obama administration antagonist, a key to helping him boost his credentials with conservatives during the primary.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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