Marco Rubio’s chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination have undoubtedly increased this weekend. But he still looks like a weak candidate.
With Jeb Bush out of the race and every serious Republican in the country determined to stop Donald Trump — and Ted Cruz, if they can help it — Rubio is the obvious consensus candidate. He got almost a quarter of the votes in Iowa and South Carolina. He has both establishment and Tea Party appeal. Rubio may not be many Republicans’ first choice; almost everybody can live with him.
The argument for Rubio is that, of the remaining candidates, only he can unify the party after what is now almost certain to be a long and contentious three-way nominating contest and only he can defeat Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in the fall.
That first claim may be right. The second is probably wrong.
The Florida senator’s ability to broaden the Republican Party’s base is untested.
If nominated, he would need to appeal to more Hispanic, moderate and young voters than Mitt Romney did four years ago.
Many pundits assume that Rubio can, given that he is relatively young himself, a Cuban American and not as crazy as Cruz or Trump, two men who have vowed to carpet-bomb the Middle East and come up with imaginative new ways to torture detainees.
But, as this website has argued, this assumes Americans will vote for Rubio because of who he is, rather than because of what he says and believes in.
Should they pay attention to his policies, neither of the three constituencies Republicans need to win over in November may find they have much reason for vote for Rubio after all.
Rubio is going out of his way to distance himself from his earlier support for more liberal immigration laws, going so far as to accuse Cruz, another Cuban American, of being soft on the issue. Hispanics may not be single-issue voters, but immigration is a touchstone issue and Rubio has yet to make an effort to repair the enormous damage Trump has done to the Republican brand with Hispanics.
Rubio’s foreign policy veers to such extremes that is hard to imagine him walking suggestions that the Democrats deliberately weakened America because they don’t believe it should be a great power.
His alarmism about Islamic terror harkens back to the frightful days after September 11, 2001. As does his insistence that either America or the terrorists win. Rubio appears to have learned nothing from the foreign-policy missteps of the last Republican administration. James Poulos, a center-right commentator, calls him the real heir of George W. Bush.
It is Rubio who has embraced Dubya and his frightfully damaged legacy as if it were the greatest inheritance of all and Rubio who channels Bush’s cocky and Christian compassion more than anyone else in the field. Rubio, more than anyone, would set out to follow in Bush’s foreign policy footsteps.
Left-wing columnists like Jon Favreau and Matthew Yglesias agree.
The latter writes at Vox that Rubio’s foreign policy — tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, sending weapons to Ukraine, isolating Cuba again — is the neoconservatism of the early Bush years all over again. His economic program — massive tax cuts, higher defense spending, no serious plan for entitlements — is a caricature of fiscal conservatism.
Favreau argues at The Daily Beast that Cruz and Trump have “moved the goalposts on what it means to be batshit crazy” so far that many are confusing Rubio’s moderate temperament with moderate policies — “of which he has none.”
He has a 100 percent rating from the NRA. He’ll appoint justices who will overturn the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision. He opposes abortion with no exception for rape or incest. He opposes stem cell research and doesn’t believe in climate change. He’d send ground troops to Syria and trillions in tax cuts to the rich.
Rubio’s admirers claim, without irony, that this represents the future of the Republican Party.
One more defeat
Politico argues that Rubio is closer to the second coming of Mitt Romney — “from policy platforms that are largely in sync to a brain trust that boasts a number of the same key figures.” He only puts a friendlier face on a platform that has failed Republicans in two presidential elections now.
This would seem to confirm Daniel Berman’s thesis that parties need to go through three election cycles to recover from a bad defeat.
The first loss is written up to bad luck, he argued. This is what Republicans did in 2008. Given George W. Bush’s unpopularity at the time and John McCain’s disastrous choice for vice president, few Republicans could have been surprised they lost.
The second defeat “is usually written up to the candidates,” according to Berman, “either the unusual strength of the incumbent or the flawed nature of their opponent.” This is what happened in 2012.
It makes sense then to find a better candidate to sell the same policies. Hence Rubio.
Now he needs to lose before Republicans will admit they have a deeper problem.
It took Britain’s Labour Party three defeats between 1979 and 1987 for it to admit it had veered too far to the left — and then one more defeat, in 1992, before it choose a leader who could appeal to voters in the middle.
Democrats in the United States similarly had to lose three presidential elections between 1980 and 1988 before they recognized that they too needed to reinvent themselves as a more centrist party.
The Republican Party is in the middle of a similar realization. It has yet to come to terms with the failures of the Bush Administration. It is starting to. Donald Trump is a symptom of that. But it won’t be done in time for the next election.