The Post reports:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview that he isn’t certain what the age of the earth is, and that parents should be able to teach their kids both scientific and religious attempts to answer the question.

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States,” Rubio told GQ. “I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.”

The U.S. Geological Survey notes that scientists have estimated the earth’s age to be about 4.5 billion years old. Rubio, who identifies himself as Catholic, noted there are both faith-based and scientific theories about the earth’s beginnings. He said that he is “not sure” we will ever be able to fully answer the question of how old our planet is.

Well, it’s not as bad as “Inherit the Wind,” but it’s not a great answer for a man striving to become a leader in his party.

Peter Wehner chides Rubio, writing, “To this I would answer that I’m not a doctor, but I know that smoking causes lung cancer. . . . For Senator Rubio to duck on this matter, then, is, to me at least, a bit disquieting. There are many issues that don’t have to do with the economy that are still worth knowing about when it comes to major political leaders. This is one of them, since it offers an insight into the broader views one holds about the nature and validity of science.” He cautions: “One of the attributes of conservatism, at least as I understand it, is openness to evidence, including scientific evidence, and embracing reality. It can be discrediting to a political party—as well as religious institutions—to stand against (or deny) overwhelming empirical evidence on any subject.”

As for Rubio (rather than the GOP more widely), the interview raises a few cautionary flags. He and his advisers should consider this an early and relatively pain-free lesson. To begin with, whether it is GQ or the New York Times, there are no softball interviews for a high-profile conservative. The throwaway questions are often trickier than the predictable policy inquiries. I suspect Rubio was caught by surprise and was vamping, not wanting to sound like a rube nor to lose the affection of Christian conservatives.

That goes to a larger challenge for Rubio (not to mention any other Republicans who want to move to the front of the GOP herd). He should figure out what he thinks, not what will be saleable in six months or a year. Indeed, the job of leaders is to shape opinion and bend events. The danger is not in being too bold and incurring the wrath of the base, but in being too timid and getting left in the dust.

This is especially true for Republicans now since the party is in flux, reconsidering issues like immigration and gay marriage and shuffling leadership. To tie oneself to conventional conservative wisdom of 2012 is to risk being seen as an impediment to the revival of the GOP and not one of its architects.

Rubio and Republican figures like Govs. Bobby Jindal (Fla.) and Bob McDonnell (Va.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have the luxury of political capital and the affection of conservatives. Each of them should put it to good use by figuring out what he think is sound policy and essential politics, putting it out to the country (not just Republicans), and seeing if he can pull the party into the 21st century. Rubio (like Jindal, McDonnell and other shining lights) is a conservative man by instinct and belief with top-flight advisers so he is unlikely to go too far off the rails on policy. But Rubio and others can shape decisions, set the tone and jump-start the Republicans’ electoral recovery by not ducking, shading and putting their forefingers in the wind.

It concerns me (as much as the age-of-the-Earth comments vex Wehner) that Rubio seems still to be trying to finesse the Dream Act rather than set the party on a wholesale revision of immigration law. He plainly believes the latter is needed, so is he afraid of the base? Is he nervous he’s going to face a primary challenger(!) in 2016?

Rubio, Jindal and others would do well to take their time, figure out what they believe and where they think the party should go and then tell the voters, explain their ideas, relate them to voters’ lives and fill in the details. They should not worry about the primary lineup or debate structure in 2016 (all that may well change) or a primary challenge years from now (who knows what politics will look like two or four years from now?). They shouldn’t fret about what talk-show hosts have to say. Just lead, for goodness sakes.

That’s really the only way to come out ahead in a time of change, namely to shape the environment, not to be a prisoner of events and louder, less insightful voices. Jindal and, to a degree ,former Florida governor Jeb Bush have shown a tendency to do so, and others in the vanguard of a new generation of Republicans should do the same. Speak up. Say what you mean. Don’t be hooted down by know-nothings. What’s the worst that can happen? (You write books, get big speaking fees and wind up with your own TV or radio show.)