Presidential Contenders: Part 8 of 10

That’s right, I’m sticking to my promises, and I’ve actually calculated how many posts remain. This post will feature the last Republican candidate still in the race that I haven’t profiled, the next will feature the two Democratic candidates, and the last will focus on the seven candidates (three Democrats, four Republicans) that have dropped out without waiting for me to finish this self-imposed task. Without further ado, I present:

Marco Antonio Rubio
Occupation: U.S. Senator from Florida (since 2011), attorney
Hometown: Miami, Florida
Education: Tarkio College, Santa Fe Community College (transferred); B.A., University of Florida; J.D., University of Miami

Senator Marco Rubio entered the race in 2015 already regarded as a “savior” of the Republican Party, being seen as a charismatic face of a new generation. Rubio is the child of Cuban immigrants and prior to his election to the Senate in 2010 was Speaker of the House in the Florida state legislature.

Being the youngest candidate in the primaries, Rubio has been lauded as a generational change for the primary (never mind the fact that his Senate colleague and fellow candidate Ted Cruz is only 5 months older) and held up as the face of a new, diverse nation (not unique in this regard, as Cruz is also the child of a Cuban immigrant, former Governor Jeb Bush speaks Spanish fluently, and former Governor Bobby Jindal is also the child of immigrants, to say nothing of Dr. Ben Carson, the only black candidate). When the inevitability narrative of Jeb Bush winning the nomination came apart in dramatic fashion over the summer, Rubio was consistently tipped as being in the top tier of candidates in the GOP primary. And a robust third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month (behind Cruz and Donald Trump) gave him momentum going into the New Hampshire primary, where a strong showing could have forced several other candidates out for good and consolidated party support behind Rubio.

But something happened a few days before New Hampshire. In a debate on February 6, Rubio (with some help from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie) moved himself from celebrated rising star to an internet meme by bizarrely repeating an irrelevant talking point about President Barack Obama’s supposed competency four times in less than an hour. This would be bad but may have slid through unnoticed has this not been in the context of Christie accusing Rubio of simply repeating “memorized twenty-five second speeches” and questioned his readiness for the job of president. Rubio finished a disappointing fifth in the New Hampshire primaries, behind Trump, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Cruz, and Bush, who all remain in the race.

But Rubio remains. The “glitch,” as it’s being called, doesn’t seem to have damaged his long-term prospects, at least in the eyes of his campaign and the media. South Carolina voters will weigh in on that on Saturday, but it is difficult to argue with the fact that many in the media and party establishment want Rubio to win—the (usually somewhat fringe and prone to conspiracy theories) blog ZeroHedge has a good piece on how it’s clear that the media is going along with this narrative. And the party establishment, as well—Rubio has garnered some major endorsements recently, from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and others.

In addition to a repeat of his robotic debate gaffe (after that, any hint of repetitiveness or being overly scripted could severely damage Rubio), I see three big barriers for Rubio to clear a path to the nomination, and two big barriers for him in the general election (against a generic Democratic candidate, I won’t bother speculating on the nuances of Rubio against either of the two Democrats still in the race). The three problems for him in the Republican primary are:

  • The core of Christie’s attacks that prompted the “glitch” was charges that Rubio is too inexperienced to be president, having never held executive office. Rubio’s constant parroting that Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing” was, in a way, designed to parry this charge by insisting that the many shortcomings of Obama’s presidency in the eyes of Republicans aren’t due to Obama’s inexperience but to his ideas and policies. But charges of inexperience could hurt him if he’s facing Kasich or Bush, who have years more experience as governors or in Congress. If it comes down to Rubio against Cruz or Trump, it’s not so clear, as Trump has no political experience and Cruz is a fellow first-term senator.
  • In 2013, Rubio led an effort at bipartisan immigration reform that went nowhere. He has disavowed reform since then, but he could lose ground among very conservative voters who could prefer Trump or Cruz’s stances, or among moderate or so-called “pro-business” Republicans who still favor reform to Kasich or Bush.
  • From everything I’ve seen in the debates, Rubio’s foreign policy sounds essentially like a rehash of that of President George W. Bush. If voters tire of interventionism and neo-conservatism, that could boost Trump or Cruz (who seems to be somewhat less intervention-minded than other Republicans) or possibly Kasich over Rubio. Obviously, there’s not much daylight between Jeb and his brother on policy, so there’s not much distinction there.

And as for some of Rubio’s weaknesses in a general election:

  • For all the talk of him as an electable Republican, Rubio is barely less conservative than Cruz according to most metrics, and more conservative than every GOP nominee for president since Barry Goldwater in 1964. If one believes that Mitt Romney and John McCain lost to Obama because they appeared too conservative (more common for Romney, as he had to pivot right in a long primary), then Rubio may have similar trouble in swing states and in expanding the GOP’s base. It’s worth noting that in 2010 (a midterm election year with lower turnout, which tends to favor conservatives), Rubio won his Senate seat with less than a majority—49 percent—in Florida.
  • There’s not much distinction between the Republican candidates on economic policy, so the primary so far has focused on foreign affairs, immigration, and other factors. This will dramatically change once the Republican candidate faces off against a Democratic candidate, and the debates will prove key for each candidate to make their case. To be honest, I’ve never been impressed with Rubio’s debate performances, even before the glitch, when the media tended to laud him. I wouldn’t be bullish on his chances against Clinton or Sanders in a one-on-one debate that allows more time to press for details and fact checking.
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