The word is that Florida Senator Marco Rubio will decide “within weeks” whether or not to seek the presidency. The dynamic young senator has been talked up as a potential presidential candidate ever since Florida voters sent him to Washington. However, if prominent pundits are to be believed, his White House prospects have been on a roller coaster: down when he voted for an immigration reform bill that angered some conservatives, up when he outlined an innovative new approach to dealing with poverty, and so on. Yet Rubio remains what he always has been: a top-tier candidate with a few vulnerabilities but numerous strengths that could make him the best candidate in 2016.
Rubio’s pluses are fairly obvious. He’s young — only 45 by election day — not to mention handsome. He hails from one of the largest swing-states in the country. As a Hispanic, he’s part of the fastest growing ethnic group in America. He is also one of the most dynamic speakers in politics today in either party, and he has an inspiring rags-to-riches story, as the son of immigrants who made their living as a bartender and a maid. This sort of optimistic, positive, everyman demeanor has great appeal to swing-voters, as Senator-elect Cory Gardner demonstrated quite clearly in his nearly perfect takedown of soon-to-be ex-Senator Mark Udall.
Perhaps more important for Rubio is that his strengths contrast nicely with the weaknesses of the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
To state the obvious, Rubio is nearly a quarter-century younger than Clinton, who will be the second-oldest president ever inaugurated if she wins. Democrats may have done well with the youth vote recently, but it isn’t a stretch to say that a much younger face like Rubio’s could peel off some of this core constituency. It will be almost comically easy for Rubio to portray Clinton, who has been part of the national political scene for well over two decades, as a hopeless creature of Washington or a throwback to a past era.
Rubio also nullifies Hillary’s advantage in potentially being a historical “first.” The media is obsessed with these firsts — the first black/Hispanic/woman/(insert your favorite identity group here) to hold a particular title. Hillary will run with the “first woman president” narrative as far as the media will let her. But Rubio’s potentially being the first Hispanic president dulls this argument considerably.
But Rubio is far from an empty suit. He is strong, knowledgeable, and passionate about foreign and defense policy, which has been a focus of his time in the Senate, since he serves on both the Foreign Relations Committee and the Intelligence Committee, as well as the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over maritime policy. Rubio has given several well-regarded speeches on foreign and defense matters, generally favoring, in the tradition of Truman or Reagan, an assertive America, with a moral vision that is active in foreign affairs. He’s been cautious to chart his own course, however, away from both the most hawkish and most dovish wings of his own party, and he has partnered with moderate Republicans such as Mark Kirk and hawkish Democrats like Bob Menendez on matters of foreign policy.
This might not seem to be a big advantage against Clinton, who, after all, was most recently President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. I can almost hear Clinton’s partisans barking about her extensive experience in foreign affairs. In reality, this is one of her greatest vulnerabilities. The majority of Americans believe, correctly in my view, that Obama’s foreign policy has been a failure. Most recently Obama had just 31 percent approval on the issue. This isn’t mere partisan sniping or spillover from other negative perceptions. His own recent CIA Director and Secretary of Defense is harshly critical of him, and purportedly clashed with the White House repeatedly during his entire time in the administration.
Clinton may think she can distance herself from Obama — she’s certainly trying. She will argue that she disagreed with some of Obama’s decisions and that she has genuine differences with him. But as the president’s chief diplomat for four years, Clinton cannot remove her fingerprints from his failures. Republicans can and should hang them around her neck, from Benghazi to ISIS to the “reset” with Russia to the chaos in Libya to an increasingly belligerent China. Either the actual failures, or the seeds of them, can be fairly traced back to her time in the administration.
What the GOP needs is an intelligent and knowledgeable candidate who can make a strong case for his own views while ripping Clinton’s record. Rubio has this ability, as well as the killer instinct necessary to use it. If you don’t believe me, try watching his takedown of outgoing Senator Tom Harkin for his naive and offensive comments praising communist Cuba. Just because Rubio has a sunny demeanor doesn’t mean he doesn’t know when to pounce.
Rubio’s minuses are well known. He’s in his first-term in the Senate, and can plausibly be attacked for being too green as well as lacking executive experience. His push for immigration angered some conservatives, and some even claim it showed him to be tone-deaf.
Yet these challenges can be managed. Rubio was a former speaker of the Florida House, and that position, while not an executive one, requires more skill and understanding of how to make things happen than does being a back-bencher state senator and like Obama. Rubio’s push for immigration reform simultaneously makes him more acceptable to moderates, and more attentive to his conservative base, since he’ll want to make doubly sure not to anger them again. Some version of immigration reform is likely inevitable, and what remains is the question of whose terms it will be. It would be better for conservatives to have someone at the bargaining table who’s watching his right flank.
So will he run? Rubio has indicated in the past that he doesn’t want to run for the White House and for re-election to the Senate at the same time, and his seat is also up in 2016. He’s also sent signals from time to time that he wouldn’t want to run against Jeb Bush, one of his mentors and benefactors, who is increasingly flirting with a 2016 bid himself. Other excellent candidates, such as Governor Scott Walker, also could make a strong play for similar primary voters.
Yet none of the other likely candidates has all of his strengths, or the qualities that disarm Clinton’s best political arguments. That has the potential to make all the difference in 2016.