Tampa—The schedule for the Republican National Convention made it clear the party would try to win over women and Latinos with empty tokenism instead of substantive policy moderation. Tuesday was women’s night. Thursday was largely for Latinos.
But the GOP has a problem: the prevalence of anti-Latino and anti-immigrant sentiment among a portion of their base. That is what has driven them to the right on immigration and in turn caused their low poll numbers among Latinos. They want to correct the political problem without solving the underlying policy problem. The result was a somewhat preposterous scenario. Speakers throughout the night invoked their families’ arrivals in America, but without ever discussing immigration as a political or policy issue.
The night featured several speakers and videos chosen partly for their nominal appeal to Latinos. The biggest by far was Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who gave the nominating speech in the network television hour. Rubio occupies a similar space for Republicans that President Obama did circa 2006 for Democrats. Rubio burst onto the national scene in 2010, winning an upset Senate primary against Governor Charlie Crist, and sweeping through the general election in a landslide. He is young, handsome and charismatic. Like Obama, he is an inspiring speaker, with a gift for telling stories and framing his life as a microcosm of America at its finest.
He did just that, and very effectively, on Thursday. He opened with the story of his grandfather, an immigrant paralyzed by polio. “The dreams he had when he was young became impossible to achieve. But there was no limit to how far I could go, because I was an American,” said Rubio. “For those of us who were born and raised in this country, it’s easy to forget how special America is. But my grandfather understood how different America is from the rest of the world, because he knew what life was like outside America.” And so Rubio demonstrates an emotional connection to recent immigrants and people from humble backgrounds, while carefully avoiding actually using the word “immigrant” or calling for any policies to help such people.
Like Obama, Rubio also has a knack for criticizing his opponents without accusing them of bad faith or being polarizing. This is a very useful skill to have when attacking Obama, who enjoys higher poll numbers for his likeability than for his job performance. Expressing a sentiment one heard from Obama regarding John McCain in 2008—and that was notably lacking from the rest of the RNC’s speakers—Rubio said: “Our problem with President Obama isn’t that he’s a bad person. By all accounts, he too is a good husband, and a good father.…. Our problem is he’s a bad president.”
At its most basic, Rubio’s story and its appeal is that he can frame his rise as the American dream come true. That conveniently squares the circle of appealing to the less fortunate without offering them health insurance, food or housing, by pointing to himself and saying they too, or their children, can get from a service job to the United States Senate.
“A few years ago during a speech, I noticed a bartender behind a portable bar at the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father who had worked for many years as a banquet bartender,” said Rubio, launching into an anecdote that he frequently uses, always to great effect. “He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not the life he wanted for us. He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room.” The crowd cheered wildly.