The 'Republican Obama' Delusion

GOP voters aren’t looking for their own young, optimistic candidate to put a new face on the party—many, in fact, want just the opposite.

Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio arrives to speak during a campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Paul Sancya / AP)

Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign was premised in large part on the idea that the young, hopeful, charismatic Senator would provide a different, and appealing, look for a Republican Party struggling with a changing electorate. There are plenty of explanations for the collapse of his candidacy—his ground game was lacking, he had broad but shallow support, he (like everyone else) underestimated the threat posed by Donald Trump. But the failure of his campaign doesn’t merely reflect on his own decisions. It also calls into question whether Republican voters were ever much interested in pursuing the vision that he—and the party’s leadership—had laid out.

Rubio initially seemed the living embodiment of the GOP’s 2012 election post-mortem, which recommended, in essence, changing nothing at all but the party’s messaging and its stance on immigration. His immigration work with the Gang of Eight obviously blew up in his face almost immediately and had to be disavowed. But he rebounded politically and was a clear—and arguably should have been the clear—favorite of the GOP establishment as the presidential race got underway. He had a limited enough legislative history that (apart from immigration) he had few ideological heresies to answer for on his resume; he had Tea Party cred without too much Tea Party baggage; and he performed well in the GOP debates. But more fundamentally, he had three intrinsic assets, all of which aligned implicitly with the 2012 post-mortem—especially in contrast with Jeb Bush, his most obvious competitor for the mantle of Establishment Man: He was young, he was Latino, and he projected optimism about the future. In all, he was a laboratory-perfect tonic for avoiding the depressing outcome of a back-to-the-past battle between another Bush and another Clinton. Beltway Republicans (and Beltway Democrats, too) imagined that these traits would make Rubio an attractive, perhaps even formidable candidate.

The problem with this thesis—in retrospect unsurprising, yet nonetheless widely unanticipated—is that none of these Rubio traits proved nearly so appealing to Republican voters, who are, by and large, older, white, and pessimistic about the future. Yes, Rubio was an attractive face for a Republican Party wishing to signal that it was moving forward into a new, multiethnic American era. But an awful lot of Republican voters view this new era with apprehension and even alarm. The very factors that appealed to cosmopolitan GOP elites may have made GOP primary voters wary: Who is this shiny young guy who seems so upbeat and upwardly mobile at exactly the moment that we feel ourselves slipping behind?

Moreover, this is not the first time that Republican elites have made precisely this mistake. It’s easy to forget now—in part because Mitt Romney ran a largely race-free campaign in 2012—but in the latter months of the 2008 general election, a distinct (and now all too familiar) element of white-grievance politics emerged, to the extent that John McCain ultimately had to intervene when shouts of “kill him” (i.e., Obama) took place at more than one of his rallies. At the time, I wrote that this ugly, racial element was unlikely to bode well for the presidential prospects of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, another smart, young, “post-racial” Republican who was then the favorite of many thoughtful conservatives to win the GOP nomination in 2012:

Though rarely explicit (and certainly not exclusive) a large portion of the GOP's closing argument this cycle has been to stoke white, working class fear and suspicion of the Other. The dark-skinned man with the foreign-sounding name may be a Muslim, or a socialist, or a friend of terrorists, or a racial huckster, or a fake U.S. citizen, or some other vague kind of "radical." You may never be sure which he is (maybe all of the above), but in your gut you simply don't "know" him the way you know the other candidates. This is not, to put it mildly, a message likely to benefit Bobby Jindal…. The GOP isn't going to be looking for its own Obama; it's going to be looking for an anti-Obama.

Ross Douthat and Daniel Larison responded by calling me “completely wrong;” David Weigel opted for “exactly wrong.” All three are extremely sharp analysts, and they sit at substantially different points on the ideological spectrum. And indeed there are plenty of explanations for Jindal’s failure to become the GOP presidential frontrunner that many predicted, beginning with his disastrous response to Obama’s State of the Union in 2009. But candidates with latent appeal have recovered from far worse.

The similarities between Jindal’s (largely illusory) presidential hopes and Rubio’s (real but disappointing) ones seem more than merely coincidental. Both were frequently described as a “Republican Obama.” And while candidates with similar profiles—notably South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and Tim Scott—have had success on the state level, comparable results have proven elusive on the national stage. The black and Latino candidates who have drawn the most GOP enthusiasm over the last two cycles have been Herman Cain, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz—all of whom have run in direct opposition to the forward-looking GOP elites who pine for a unifying, post-racial candidate.

Like Douthat, Weigel, and Larison, I sincerely wish that this were not the case. But the available evidence—including, most dramatically, Rubio’s flameout—suggests that the Republican electorate still isn’t looking for its own Obama. One day in the not-too-distant future, perhaps it will. But for now it is still looking for its anti-Obama. And however the GOP primaries ultimately play out, it has clearly found one—worse, I think, than any of us ever anticipated—in Donald Trump.