Following Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, Marco Rubio this week became the latest of the Tea Party troika to enter the 2016 presidential race. Besides his telegenic looks, his youth, his great delivery, and his attractive home state of Florida, Rubio has one undeniable advantage: Nobody in the party really hates him.
Despite some creative policy-finessing, Paul still finds implacable opposition from Republican hawks. If the ping-pong balls all bounced his way and he won the nomination, prominent senators (like Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton) and name-brand Republican commentators (like William Kristol of The Weekly Standard) would be tempted to defect to Hillary Clinton.
It is doubtful that Paul could ever reassure the hawks enough, short of dropping his father, along with a nuclear payload on Iranian nuclear facilities. Even then, it might be a tough sell. If it looks like Paul is getting close to the nomination there will be a surge of cynics and opportunists arguing that his mere nomination risks splitting the party and possibly inflicting a Whig-like death on it.
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Then there's Cruz, who is beloved by certain sections of the Tea Party, but not so quietly loathed by many of his fellow senators and almost the entire Republican "establishment." It would be hard to find conservative commentators who think that Cruz has a real shot of bringing states like Ohio or Pennsylvania back into the Republican coalition.
Jeb Bush has the same problem Mitt Romney did in 2012. Bush is the establishment's favorite candidate, and so even though his record shows him to be a very conservative governor, he will naturally have a difficult time winning over the organs of the conservative movement, for whom every establishment-approved nominee is a Nelson Rockefeller who must be opposed by a true conservative. Also, on top of Bush's "heresy" on immigration, he is a supporter of Common Core, which has become the label that parents have attached to anything and everything they've come to hate about public education.
Yes, there are some malcontents who cannot forgive Rubio's tub-thumping for comprehensive immigration reform. But there are currently no candidates who really fit the "restrictionist" mold on immigration. Even Cruz, who talks up border security, wants to increase the number of legal immigrants.
Rubio ticks all the right boxes for the party. He is hawkish enough for the hawks. He is pro-business and pro-immigration enough for The Wall Street Journal editorial board. He is pro-life and religious enough for the populist right. He is talented at selling the Republican platform as common-sense, inclusive Americanism. In March, a Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they could see themselves supporting Rubio. Only 14 percent said Rubio had no chance to win them. Rubio doesn't have a natural ceiling.
Rubio also can check "Hispanic" on forms honestly, unlike Bush. It's very likely that the story of nominating Rubio can gain momentum as a positive one for the Republican Party as a whole, just as the story of Barack Obama's campaign became a larger one about his party and the nation itself. The United States has undergone (and continues to undergo) the greatest wave of immigration in its history. It would be natural for the son of Cuban immigrants (who pre-date and foreshadow the post-1965 wave) to become the symbol of America's future. The Republican Party needs to find ways to grow, and Rubio will give the party a story about how it can do so.
In other words, Rubio is possibly the best ideological fit for the Republican Party today, or at least running even with Scott Walker. But rooting for Rubio is going to feel good for Republicans. It will feel like rooting for the universality of your principles, and for the future of your nation.
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