There is no GOP 2016 contender who had a worse 2013 than Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) It’s a telling story of a politician who lost his moorings, and it’s an open question if he can re-establish himself as a top-tier presidential contender.
Rubio had an image — consultants call it a “brand” — of a thoughtful, charismatic conservative who many considered the future of the party. For a freshman he had talked substance and learned a lot about foreign policy. He had given wonderful speeches on Israel, immigration and upward mobility. But he had played it safe, never taking a hard vote on a budget or anything else that might annoy the right wing. Then he tried immigration reform, wound up with a bill much more pleasing to the Democratic than GOP base, got bashed and freaked out. He immediately rushed right to grab onto the shutdown. He also seemed to flee from the immigration issue. And then baffling his hawkish supporters, he voted no on action against Syria. By the end of 2013, he seemed immature, unstable and unprincipled. He managed to anger mainstream Republicans and the right-wing base.
He remains an immensely talented politician, however. His life story and rhetorical skills are compelling, and let’s be candid — good-looking politicians do better than ugly ones.
Rubio now, however, has the opposite problem that Gov. Scott Walker faces. Rubio has great curb appeal, but the substance and stability of what is behind that is now in question. Walker is solid, accomplished and liked by most segments of the party. But he lacks the charismatic personality. In real estate terms, he is the house with “great bones” but lacking Rubio’s curb appeal.
A great many Republicans — donors, voters, activists and third-party groups — think the 2016 nominee will need both surface appeal and solid substance to beat Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination. In the last two elections the Republican nominee lost by 7 and then 3 points; to shift that to +1 in 2016, the GOP will need someone who is the whole package.
So what does Rubio do now? Fortunately for him, he has the luxury of time. He still has the potential to wow non-Republicans and broaden the party’s appeal. But he needs to settle down, to figure out what kind of politician he wants to be. He can be the mainstream, respected Republican who reassures donors and business people but has enough conservative conviction to win the far-right base. Or he can try to play in the right-wing lane, a competitor for the voters to whom Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) will appeal. Right now, no one can figure out which one he is, or if he has the gravitas to project a presidential persona.
Candidly, he had more to benefit from by being in the mainstream lane, the one from which virtually all GOP presidential nominees come. In 2016 in particular the mainstream lane may have a wide opening. Jeb Bush and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) may not run; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a question mark. If none of those three pan out (or if all run and divide the vote) Rubio may have a path to the nomination.
But whatever sort of candidate Rubio decides to be, he’s got to embrace that outlook, develop an agenda that fits his image and project stability and certainty in that role. He must be consistent. The other alternative, of course, is to sit out 2016, give himself years to mature and come back in another cycle. He’s a very young man so he has a long time to decide when to run. (If he runs now and loses, he suffers a real blow.)
In short, Rubio dug himself quite a hole, but he has time and skills to climb out if he puts his mind to it. He remains — along with Christie — a huge political talent of the sort that can outshine Hillary. However, curb appeal alone won’t vault him to the top of the 2016 list.