When Jeb Bush began “exploring” a presidential race, I, like many other observers, assumed that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would not run. He would buried by the avalanche of money Bush would raise. Bush was better known and had more support in their home state. Bush had the executive experience. Well, Rubio deserves a mea culpa. He has shown he would be a unique candidate in many respects. He runs laps around other potential candidates when it comes to impassioned oratory and creative policy production. He may be the best hope the GOP has to expand its appeal to an increasingly diverse electorate. Rather than ask why the GOP needs Rubio in the race if it has Bush, many are now asking why the party needs to deal with the Bush dynasty problem if it has Rubio.
Despite his youth and telegenic persona, Rubio is no President Obama. Rubio had a distinguished record (not a host of “present” votes) as speaker and representative in the state house. Moreover, he is not running on “hope and change” but on a robust, comprehensive agenda of renewing American strength and moral standing in the world and addressing the needs of lower- and middle-class Americans at home. Other candidates have a few domestic items or a solid understanding of foreign policy, but there is none that yet has a concrete and complete agenda covering everything from Iran to immigration to higher-ed reform. There is little doubt where he stands on just about every major topic of the day. In short, he knows what he wants to do and where he wants to take the country. He knows what is important to the country, not simply what issues strike his fancy.
Moreover, no potential candidate is as adept at communicating as Rubio. No one can better sell the GOP as a new and different party, not of old white guys but of an increasingly diverse America. Part of that is attributable to Rubio’s life story and his ethnic heritage rooted in the immigrant success story, but he is also by any measure uncommonly eloquent and winning as a speaker or interviewee.
In two speeches on the Senate floor — one in defense of his immigration plan and one, this past week, in defense of Israel — he provided inspirational leadership. In the former, he declared:
And even with all our challenges, we remain the shining city on the hill. We are still the hope of the world. And even with all our challenges, we remain the shining city on the hill. We are still the hope of the world. Go to our factories and fields. Go to our kitchens and construction sites. Go to the cafeteria of this very Capitol. There, you will find that the miracle of America still lives. For here, in America, those who once had no hope will give their children the life they once wanted for themselves. Here, in America, generations of unfulfilled dreams will finally come to pass. I support this reform. Not just because I believe in immigrants, but because I believe in America even more.
He can lift up listeners and call on the better angels of our nature. He can show real passion and also some righteous fire and anger, as he did when blasting the president for his reprehensible conduct toward the Israeli prime minister. You don’t have to guess where his interests lie or whether he feels strongly about a topic.
And there is something admirable in refusing to be big-footed out of the race by a better funded candidate. Doesn’t Rubio have at least as much, if not more, to offer than other potential candidates? Indeed, letting Bush take the far right’s broadsides on immigration gives Rubio more breathing space to present his complete agenda and allow voters to get to know him. It could be that having Bush in the race is actually a help.
Most important, in the preview we have seen of Hillary Clinton over the past few weeks, we were reminded how old, how cynical, how entitled, how greedy, and how lacking in ideas and charm she is. Rubio (like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) certainly would provide a sharp contrast. Whatever else he may be, no one can say Rubio is old, cyncical, entitled, greedy or lacking in ideas or charm.
Rubio is by no means the most likely nominee, although Americans love underdogs. And there is no doubt his lack of executive skill is a negative. His youthful appearance needs to be bolstered by grit, weightiness and strength. In other words, he must convince voters he is not “too nice” to beat Clinton or too green to be commander in chief and chief executive.
His most formidable competition as the not-Bush candidate comes from Walker, who embodies the same youthful persona and can also offer a conservative reform agenda. Walker has the toughness but not the eloquence of Rubio; Rubio has the vision but not the experience in governance that Walker does. Rubio will need to show that in totality he is simply a better candidate and better prepared to win and govern than Walker and other challengers. That is what a campaign is all about, and there is genuine excitement in the party to see what each hopeful has, how each will perform and who really does have the stuff to be president. It is refreshing to have a contest where the bracket is not filled out in advance and there is a rationale for more than one talented contender to go the distance.
But all that will get worked out over the months ahead. For now, Rubio has answered two key questions: Should he be in the race? Certainly. Could he be the nominee? Absolutely. Like many, we did underestimate his appeal and abilities. So now that he has our attention, let’s see what he can do.