Marco Rubio's Gordian knot
Can the candidate of a new generation reinvent himself for an aging Republican electorate?
By the time Marco Rubio arrived in Washington in 2011, he had already learned a profound lesson from Barack Obama. That lesson, which came from Obama's election in 2008, said that despite what much of history and some people in Washington might advise, you don't have to wait your turn to run for president. You don't have to amass a lengthy record in government, work your way up the ladder, and get some grey around your temples. If you've got the talent and the timing, you can seize your moment and reach for that ultimate prize.
And so Rubio did. But even as he remains the Republican candidate that informed insiders are most bullish on, something is not right with his bid. He has crept up in the polls, but still remains a distant third behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. He doesn't lead in any state, not even Florida. And the message on which he has built his candidacy seems all wrong for the Republican electorate of the moment. Is there any way for Rubio to untie this Gordian knot?
Part of the problem may be that the Marco Rubio of 2015 does indeed resemble the Barack Obama of 2007: both young, only in Washington a few years after stints in their state legislatures, possessed of natural political skills and an ability to transfix a crowd, one black and the other Hispanic, both with family histories they skillfully weave into the story of America.
But in the 2008 election, Obama's timing was impeccable. He embodied an inversion and a rejection of everything his party hated about the sitting president. Unlike his main opponent, he had the right position on the single most important issue of the campaign (the Iraq War). And he reflected the party's changing demographic identity — not just who it was, but how it wanted to see itself.
Marco Rubio has none of that. There is no one issue dominating the race on which there's a clear division between the candidates. The leaders of his party want and need to embrace Hispanic voters, but its base is still dominated by older white people. And though few doubt that Rubio has the talent, his timing looks to be all wrong.
From the beginning, Rubio has characterized himself as the candidate of a new generation, ready to move the GOP into the 21st century. But while that might have some resonance against Hillary Clinton, it isn't necessarily what the Republican electorate wants. Obama succeeded with Democrats by offering hope and change, a faith in the country's progress and forward movement. But Republican voters are different. As I've written elsewhere, current Republican worries about immigration, terrorism, same-sex marriage, and many other issues are essentially all manifestations of one feeling, the sense of being profoundly unsettled by the direction the country and the world is moving. For voters who feel like their country is slipping away from them and slipping out of control, change may be the last thing they want to believe in, unless it's change that simply turns back the clock to a simpler time.
Rubio himself can't seem to figure out how to express who he is while still appealing to those worried voters. He doesn't do anger like Donald Trump, and though devout he isn't going to be the choice of evangelicals like Ted Cruz. When he talks about his immigrant parents sacrificing to give him opportunity, it's stirring — but right now Republican voters don't want to hear about the contributions immigrants make.
When he first came to the Senate, Rubio would drop in references to rappers in his speeches to show how hip he was, but he isn't doing that anymore. And in his latest TV ad, he says that the election "is about all of us who feel out of place in our own country." That shows that he understands the alienated feeling many older voters have, when they look at the way the country's demographics are changing, its social values have evolved past them, and pop culture has become inscrutable, as it always is to the old.
But the idea that Marco Rubio feels out of place in his country is ridiculous, to friend and foe alike. That was supposed to be his whole appeal, that he was the one who wasn't out of place in the new America. Young, Hispanic (and bilingual), forward-looking, in touch with today and tomorrow, Rubio was supposed to be the one who would lead the party into a bright future, not sit down in a rocking chair with them to pine for the past.
That's the conundrum Rubio hasn't yet solved. In so many ways he's the perfect candidate for Republicans — or at least the best they've got — but he's exactly wrong for where the Republican electorate is right now.