It’s one thing to for everyone to know whom a major party is going to nominate for president long before it happens. In 2000, for example, it was widely expected that Vice President Al Gore would be the Democratic nominee to succeed Bill Clinton, and there’s nothing strange about that.
But it’s unusual, even bizarre, how it is virtually assumed that the Republican nominee this year will ask Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) to be his running mate. Candidates are usually coy about whom they might put on their ticket, but in a recent debate in Florida Newt Gingrich openly said he has Rubio in mind. He has consistently led the Intrade market for the Republican vice-presidential nomination for months.
Rubio, 40, was only elected to the Senate in 2010, after he chased Governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican primary. Prior to that he was just the former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. And unlike, say, Michele Bachmann he had not distinguished himself as a principled defender of extreme conservatism on the national stage. But Rubio became a hero to the Tea Party movement and the right more generally.
Handsome, young, self-made and impressively charismatic, his rise is reminiscent of a certain other first term senator who excited his party and charmed his way onto a national ticket. And like President Obama, Rubio seems to inspire such ardor because of what he embodies rather than what he has achieved legislatively.
And what is it that he embodies? Most prominently it is the false hope that the Republican Party can win over Latino voters.
The Republican campaigns have been chasing the Latino vote for months. Mitt Romney started blasting press releases alleging that Obama has failed Latinos economically last summer. More recently he has aired television commercials in Spanish. In New Hampshire Gingrich held a “Latino Town Hall.” Every Republican candidate has organized his Latino supporters.
Of course this is hypocritical. Republicans routinely complain that identity politics and affirmative action categorize people by groups when everyone should be treated solely as an individual. Even Ron Paul makes regular announcements that ‘Hispanics for Ron Paul’ is welcoming new members. (In fairness, Paul doesn’t limit this to Latinos, press releases such as “ Ron Paul Nevada Team Welcomes ‘Seniors for Ron Paul’ Nationwide Coalition Members” regularly fills my inbox as well.)
It’s all kind of sad. They so earnestly chase after Latino voters, when they won’t have a chance of winning them. The Republican Party’s embrace of harsh language and policies toward undocumented immigrants does not help. Nor does their record of favoring the interests of the wealthy over everyone else.
And Republicans seem completely unaware of the diversity of the Latino community. Rubio is Cuban-American. Politically, that does not mean he has anything more in common with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, or Mexicans. Cuban-Americans are much more Republican and conservative than other Latino immigrant groups.
That, of course, all goes back to the Cuban Revolution and the staunch anti-Castro sentiment among Cuban exiles. The sentiment is so strong that Rubio used to routinely claim his parents fled Castro when they had actually emigrated years before he took power. Such embellishments might prove an embarrassment if he were on a national ticket. So could the fact that his brother-in-law was convicted of drug trafficking. Univision, by far the largest Spanish language network in the United States broke that story, and Rubio’s efforts to bully them into not running it has resulted in him having a very adversarial relationship with them.
The love for Rubio was palpable at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC, on Thursday morning. The first major speaker, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), exhorted the audience to give to conservative Senate candidates outside their state, invoking Rubio as an illustrative example, to enthusiastic applause. Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, introduced Rubio with florid praise for him as personal embodiment of the soul of conservatism, rather than mere politician. “What makes me proud[est] of this man is how he lives his life…his love of family and his Creator,” said Cardenas. “[Rubio is] someone who I know I’m going to say hello to in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue one day,” Cardenas asserted to big applause and cheers. Rubio was welcomed with a standing ovation; he had to say, “Please be seated,” like a priest at a wedding.
It is easy to see from Rubio’s speech why conservatives love him so. He presents their angry feelings and dark worldview in the most positive manner possible. He is a natural kibitzer on stage, cracking jokes that manage to be neither caustic nor corny (although they aren’t terribly funny either). It’s certainly conceivable that he could win a national election despite his strident policies, just as the famously affable but ardently conservative Ronald Reagan did.
But his pitch is considerably more partisan than is Obama’s, and that might limit his appeal outside his party. He takes cheap shots, such as joking that “it’s hard to get a teleprompter in this town, there’s someone who uses it a lot.”
Whereas Obama positions himself as an American first and a Democrat second, Rubio divisively asserts his tribal identification with the movement conservative identity. “Conservatives—or as I like to say ‘the majority,’ ” he began one riff. And he indulges intellectual dishonesty to make his points. “Republicans fight about who’s more like Ronald Reagan; Democrats fight about who is more like Jimmy Carter,” Rubio observes, to prove his claim that Americans are mostly conservative. Carter, of course, is not the liberal equivalent of Reagan. Republicans don’t fight to say they are the most like Gerald Ford, but Democrats do like to say Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy inspire them.
Rubio dishonestly asserted that the economy grew worse after President Obama’s policies, such as the American Recovery Act, took effect. More troublingly, he predicted, “Look at Europe: that’s our future. We don’t know if it’s in six months or six years, but it’s coming.” That kind of fear-mongering is irresponsible and factually false. No respectable economic forecaster is predicting a Eurozone crisis in the United States in six months.
One conservative erogenous zone Rubio touches is religion. John McCain and Mitt Romney are not the types to work religious themes into their speeches. Rubio gives God credit for everything. He says we should thank God for giving us freedom and peace, which suggests a strange lack of faith in democracy. Is it not the people, through their elected representatives, who have made those things happen? Case in point: we are no longer in Iraq, for which we can thank President Obama, and ourselves for electing him, not God.
Even policies that would seem to be solely about fulfilling material desires, such as drilling for oil, are the Lord’s work in Rubio’s rhetoric. “You need to use the energy that God has blessed your nation with,” he declared, to applause.
Although Rubio has dropped the false story of his family’s flight from communism, he still milked his family history, saying that he had opportunities his ancestors did not because he was born in the United States. Rubio closed his speech with a section that showed how he could appeal beyond the conservative base. He talked about how America has spread freedom through military intervention and by example, warning that if the US surrenders its global leadership we will be supplanted by China and Russia. “That’s what November will be about,” said Rubio. The notion that President Obama—who helped defeat Muammar Qaddafi after his Republican predecessors failed to and gave up on trying—is surrendering our global influence is absurd. But it’s an essential component of the Republican message this year and Rubio frames it in a much more inspiring way than Romney does.
What Republicans like about Rubio—his partisanship, his conservatism—is not going to make many Latinos switch parties to vote for the Republican ticket if he is on it. But to swing voters more generally, Rubio certainly puts a friendlier face on the same old party.