Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, has been written off for all the wrong reasons.
His suggestion last week that his staff should prepare for a presidential campaign was met with incredulity. Jeb Bush has likely already secured exclusive access to the wellspring of Florida GOP fundraisers. There are other 2010 Tea Party classmates, like Rand Paul, who haven’t picked a fight with the GOP base on immigration. There’s even a sense that Rubio is out of his league, too much of a small fry to compete in a potential field with battle-tested governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie on the one side, and heavyweight fundraisers like Bush and Mitt Romney on the other.
But Rubio has charisma, at least the sort that works in American politics. He’s an impressive campaigner. And he can give a good speech. Even in a crowded GOP field, Rubio could be a formidable candidate.
The first impediment is his famous effort at immigration reform, inclusive of a path for citizenship. In the era of full-tilt opposition to President Obama and tea cup–throwing activism, yes, this is unpopular. Conservative voters, faced with a slate of 10 or more candidates, will be choosy. Romney, for example, made Rick Perry pay dearly for suggesting amnesty opponents “didn’t have a heart.”
But if Romney was able to overcome his role in creating a model for ObamaCare, then Rubio is also capable of smoothing over his apostasy on this issue, especially given how fluently he speaks to conservative audiences. A party out of the White House for two terms usually becomes less ideologically demanding. And as with gay marriage, one can sense Republicans starting to reconcile themselves with an inevitability. Obama’s own executive actions on immigration have been met with a shrug, relatively speaking.
Rubio has also been underrated by some conservative journalists who may be more friendly to a Rand Paul–style remake of GOP foreign policy. I count myself among that group. But, if we are being honest, the 2014 election re-empowered and reinvigorated the party’s hawks. Rubio will be a natural fundraiser among this group, which may prefer their policies be associated with a name other than Bush.
Rubio will also have a generational advantage in the nominating contest. If the media even begins to suspect that the U.S. is really heading for a Clinton-Bush or Clinton-Romney contest, there will be a collective rush to find a candidate that represents the future. Rubio fits the bill. He is not in any way associated with specific policies that caused the economic crash in 2007 and 2008. Despite once leaping for a glass of water in the midst of a national television address, he is telegenic. His speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention was one of the rare highlights of that affair. And a Latino leading the GOP is the embodiment of a hopeful future in which the sons of immigrants can be so invested in the country that they feel comfortable in a conservative, center-right party.
Rubio has some ideological advantages, too. He can speak to conservatives with an ease that the “severely conservative” Romney lacks. And it seems Jeb Bush is determined not to cede much rhetorical ground to the right either. Bush’s statement that the Republican candidate must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” reeks of Huntsman-esque high-handedness. Rubio’s speech at the 2012 convention was a model of appealing to social conservatives in a way that doesn’t freak out the mushy middle.
Speaking of, Rubio doesn’t freak out the donor class or the GOP elite, in the way that Rand Paul does on foreign policy, or Ted Cruz does on electability. His candidacy will not excite attacks from GOP interest groups. The Club for Growth will load for bear to stop Mike Huckabee. It’s impossible to imagine any group of that clout doing so to stop Rubio. In fact, GOP insiders know that Rubio has quietly cultivated a number of unofficial advisers from across the conservative movement — journalists, think-tankers, and activists. This was a wise strategy.
The rest of the GOP field underestimates him at their peril.