For someone who just officially joined the race for president, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) is already well experienced in the roller-coaster ride these contests produce. He’s been up and down, lionized and dissed, sought after and dismissed. On Monday, he sought to start anew.
In his announcement speech, he tried to turn potential liabilities — youth and relative inexperience — into assets. He offered a direct challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush, a pointed declaration that leaders formed in the late 20th century are not the ones America and the world need in the second decade of the 21st century.
His personal and family story, his fast rise to national prominence, and even his speech Monday echo the political story of President Obama. It was Obama, after all, who eight years ago declared his candidacy with a promise to close the books on a long chapter of political discord and — by implication at least — to bring an end to politics dominated by people named Clinton and Bush.
Without naming either of those candidates, Rubio put it this way Monday: “Yesterday is over, and we are never going back.”
Rubio, like Obama before him, is not prepared to wait his turn. As David Axelrod told Obama shortly before he decided to run in the 2008 campaign, “You will never be hotter than you are right now.” Obama seized the moment, toppled the Clinton machine and easily captured the White House.
Rubio cannot claim, as of now, to enjoy the kind of white-hot phenom status Obama had when he became a candidate in early 2007. But in his own calculations, he must believe that waiting will not improve his prospects of winning. He knows, as Obama knew, that the longer he stays in the Senate, the more baggage he will accumulate that will weigh him down in a presidential campaign.
Rubio knows this better than most, having decided to help lead the fight for comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate immediately after the 2012 elections, in which Mitt Romney got just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. It was a time when many Republicans believed that support for such legislation was necessary to create an opening to appeal more effectively to those voters. And who better than Rubio to make that argument?
But within months, attitudes in the Republican Party shifted, moving away from support for a path to citizenship or legal status for those already here illegally to take a much harder line against anything that could be described even loosely as amnesty. Caught on the wrong side of that debate, Rubio tried to scramble back. He is still trying to make amends.
Rubio is one of his party’s most gifted politicians, with oratorical skills that eclipse those of many of his rivals. His announcement speech struck high notes, blending the story of his family’s emigration from Cuba to the United States with the aspirations of all in America who seek a better life for themselves and their children.
Rubio’s ability to project from his life experience to identify with the bartender in the back of the room, those who work in hotel kitchens or on landscaping crews, or who struggle against tall odds to raise their families gives his rhetoric power and potential resonance.
His diligence in digging into the details of policy, foreign and domestic, marks him as a politician comfortable with substance beyond the style of his persona. He has spoken often about issues of poverty, economic mobility and educational opportunity — not alone within his party, certainly, but as part of a new generation of conservatives looking to break from the past.
That was central to Rubio’s message Monday, though his speech was heavier on broad themes. Whether the specifics that underpin that message will prove both substantively sound and politically appealing is part of his challenge. He provided a vision with a road map to come.
That Rubio has natural political talents is clear to all who have watched him rise in prominence. His future-oriented and positive message, encapsulated Monday when he turned his story into an American story, is a strength to build upon.
Rubio has the potential to be a cross-cutting candidate. He was an inside player in the Florida legislature as speaker of the House and therefore is comfortable with establishment politics. He knows the outside game as well. He was the tea party’s darling when he demolished a sitting governor, Charlie Crist, in the Senate contest in 2010, forcing Crist out of the race and eventually out of the GOP.
But as a senator, Rubio has offended some of those tea party activists with his immigration stance, and others on the right, from Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) to Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), will stake their claims to that part of the GOP coalition. He has stiff competition as well — from Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and perhaps others — for establishment support.
The experience gained from his 2010 Senate run will give him confidence that he can surmount the obvious obstacles ahead, but he must prove it in the most challenging arena yet.
To win, he must also overcome the Obama factor. If his candidacy is at least superficially like Obama’s in its future-oriented appeal, it is also shadowed by the public’s reaction to six-plus years of the Obama presidency. Is the country ready, after electing one youthful senator with minimal experience, to elect another youthful senator in his first term in Washington?
Rubio hopes to cast this contest in generational terms, rather than as a question of experience and preparation. He is betting that in the end, voters will take a chance again rather than turning once more to a Bush or Clinton to lead them.
To read Dan Balz’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/politics.