Marco Rubio: A GOP Rising Star

Photo by Alan Clanton

Marco Rubio: A GOP Rising Star

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Tampa, Florida: In an age when political conventions deliver little in the way of real drama or tension (when was the last time we had a Democratic or Republican convention in which the outcome of the nomination was actually in question?) these choreographed and scripted gatherings offer instead other interactions between party and public.

Aside from the official business of resolutions, credentials and platforms, conventions are opportunities for parties to unite internally and channel energy. Conventions also provide a chance for the nominee and his surrogates to shape and sharpen the message, filtering it through the lens of the electronic media and print journalism. But mostly it’s a grand political television show for those who choose to watch it, as opposed to those who choose to watch something else—hurricane updates, America’s Got Talent, NFL football, to name a few.

But one of the key elements of any political convention is recognition of the rising stars—those political figures who have arrived on the radar screens of the press and political pros alike.

When Mitt Romney became the more-or-less undisputed nominee-apparent back in late April—after his five-state sweep of New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware shut down challenges from Rick Santorum and New Gingrich—the long, traditional run-up to the convention began in earnest, and almost immediately included the usual talk of a running mate.

For the GOP this was serious, viscerally awkward stuff. For all their street-fighting skills and political discipline, Republicans had over the last few decades shown a persistent pattern of blundering when it came to the Number Two positions. The Democrats had engaged in some misfires of their own in times nearly forgotten—McGovern’s selection of Tom Eagleton, Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro—but since the time when George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle in 1988, it has been the GOP with the more pronounced clinical condition known as VPSDD (vice-presidential selection deficit disorder).

John McCain’s 2008 selection of Sarah Palin has been widely regarded, by some analysts and historians, as essentially fatal to his candidacy, though in fact one could also easily argue that the Wall Street meltdowns and ensuing recessionary collapse were the more prominent features in McCain’s loss to Barack Obama. Still, for Republicans, many of those scabs and scars have not fully healed. Nervousness accompanied every step of the process in the weeks leading up to Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. The day Ryan was selected, the majority of Republicans breathed a deep, collective sigh of relief; Ryan had already proven himself to be smart and articulate, and his multiple terms in Congress meant he was pre-vetted.

When a nominee-apparent makes his veep selection, it is often viewed as the first major test of his decision-making skills. Indeed, Ryan was a smart choice, and for all the right reasons. Already a rising star within the GOP and a highly knowledgeable budget policy expert, the Governor’s selection of Ryan showed Romney at his best: a savvy, smart manager of important business and political decisions, averse perhaps to risk, but willing also to step outside the comfort zone long enough to look past the easiest of choices. In that sense, Romney passed his first management test—with the media, with the followers in his own party, and among those non-partisans who simply watch the process unfold on television or read about it on the web (see “The Lombardi Power Sweep,” May 29, 2012). There were no surprises, no accusations of pandering, no grumbling about sloppy vetting.

Ryan was already widely discussed by the chattering classes as being on Romney’s short-list. There were, of course, other names frequently mentioned, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Christie has long been a favorite of traditionalists and movement conservatives alike. Though less polished than Romney, his allure is nevertheless infectious—Republicans love his forceful bluntness, his aversion to equivocation and his Can-Do street smarts. Christie is a rare politician for whom the term Stand-Up Guy appropriately applies. His Tuesday night speech rallying Republicans to action was widely considered a smash hit.

Both Rubio and Christie had said they were not interested in the job of vice-president, but there was a clear sense that—where Gov. Christie meant it when he said “no”—Rubio, on the other hand, was a young man ready to make the jump into the national fray.

Marco Rubio’s charisma and stage presence is formidable. Indeed, other than Christie and perhaps Paul Ryan, no other politician making the rounds inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum this week drew as large a contingent of reporters and cameras. Rubio carries with him an ease with public life, a natural gravitas, and a youthful energy—in short, the brand of undeniable star power that puts him in a special class of contemporary political figures alongside other presidential contenders and hopefuls: Thomas Dewey, John V. Lindsey, Phillip Crane, Jack Kemp, Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and of course, Robert Kennedy. All names at one time or another linked to the phrase young man in a hurry, and all referred to by their contemporaries in the press as being representative of the future of their respective parties.

But for Republicans, Rubio is a unique figure. Deemed as essential to the widely discussed outreach—by both parties—to Latinos, Rubio combines charisma and youthful exuberance with a direct appeal to native Spanish speakers, and to second and third generation Latinos. Like Democratic rising star Julian Castro (scheduled in prime time to speak next week in Charlotte), Rubio is on the front lines of the battle to attract or retain the loyalties of the Hispanic voter, often seen as one of the several “decisive” voting blocs in this year’s election (see, “Will the Latino Vote be Decisive?” June 17, 2012). For the GOP, Rubio—and the other Latinos who have spoken to GOP this week, such as New Mexico’s Susana Martinez and Puerto Rico’s Luis Fortuno—helps to purge some of the lingering odor from the sometimes strident conversation about immigration and border security during last year’s early Republican debates.

Rubio’s placement on the schedule Thursday night in Tampa was no accident, nor was it a consolation prize for perhaps being passed over by Romney when the nominee-apparent had a short list of only four or five names—Rubio’s being one of them. Aside from the fact that the Sunshine State is one of the most critical battlegrounds in this election, Romney and other top GOP brass wanted Rubio at that podium in that key prime-time slot because the young Florida Senator may very well be the key figure in planning for future of the Republican Party.

In his much anticipated address to delegates on Thursday night, Senator Rubio began by telling us that he had watched his first Republican Convention in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was nominated and later elected. Rubio’s grandfather, a Cuban immigrant, faced limitations on what he could have accomplished, but young Marco faced no such limits as an American.

Rubio then went on to describe Romney as a leader who understands American exceptionalism, a businessman who understands how jobs are created, as well as a man who is also a good husband, father and grandfather.

“Our problem with President Obama isn’t that he’s a bad person,” Rubio said during his introduction of Romney on Thursday, “because by all accounts, he too is a good husband, and a good father—and, thanks to a lot of practice, a pretty good golfer. Our problem is that he’s a bad president.”

“The new slogan for the President’s campaign is forward,” Rubio went on, “…[but] a government that spends one trillion dollars more than it takes in…an eight hundred billion stimulus package that created more debt than jobs…a government intervention into health care paid for with higher taxes and cuts to Medicare…scores of new rules and regulations. These ideas don’t move us forward, they take us backward.”

“These are tired and old big government ideas,” Rubio said, “ideas that people come to America to get away from. Ideas that threaten to make American more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world to become more like America.” To the Republicans present in the hall, this drew a thunderous ovation, one of the biggest of the night. But for Rubio, this was just a warm-up.

“Millions of Americans are insecure about their future,” Rubio said, referring to President Obama’s 2008 campaign mantra of hope and change, “but instead of inspiring us by reminding us of what makes us special, he divides us against each other. He tells some Americans that they’re worse off because others are better off. That people got rich by making others poor. Hope and change has become divide and conquer.”

Then came the real zinger.

“No matter how you feel about President Obama,” Rubio said, slowing his energetic pace ever-so-slightly, “this election is about your future, not his.” Again, in keeping with what Republicans hope to be a clear-cut and defining referendum on Obama’s performance in office, the economy trumps everything else. Rubio’s background question was, like Ryan’s on Wednesday night, are you better off than you were four years ago?

“And it’s not simply a choice between a Democrat and a Republican,” Rubio said, “it’s a choice about what kind of country we want America to be.” This drew more enthusiastic applause from the audience, and a deep, raw collective roar from the thousands of delegates and alternates. The room was nearly vibrating. But there was a something more revealing at work in the room during Rubio’s speech.

From my seat on the level even with most of the network broadcast booths—and my view placed me very close to the CNN studio, slightly to my right—I could easily see John King, David Gergen and Gloria Borger hovering inside CNN’s open-air balcony. King was standing, and Gergen and Borger remained seated but turned in their chairs to face the podium. Where their eyes were once fixed on Rubio as he stood at the rostrum, they now scanned the hall, eyes and heads moving across the room from left to right. Directly to my right, even closer than the CNN booth, was CBS’s temporary Tampa newsroom, where anchor Scott Pelley and Old School pro Bob Scheiffer were watching as well, their backs turned to the inactive studio cameras, their eyes scanning the bedlam below. At that instant Pelley and Scheiffer traded—what appeared from my seat, at least— knowing, sage glances in response to the thunderous ovation on the floor. This was a telling detail: seasoned, perhaps even slightly cynical journalists, acknowledging the effect of a charismatic voice.

“As we prepare to make this choice,” Rubio said, “we should remember what made us special. For most of history almost everyone was poor. Power and wealth belonged to only a few. Your rights were whatever your rulers allowed you to have. Your future was determined by your past. If your parents were poor, so would you be. If you were born without opportunities, so were your children.”

“But America,” Rubio continued, “was founded on the principle that every person has God-given rights…that government exists to protect our rights and serve our interests…that we shouldn’t be trapped in the circumstances of our birth…and that we should be free to go as far as our talents and work can take us. We are special because we’ve been united not by a common race or ethnicity. We’re bound together by common values: that family is the most important institution in society, and that almighty God is the source of all we have.”

This again brought the delegates, visitors and guests to their feet. For Republicans, Rubio’s delivery of this message was not only well-calibrated outreach to minorities, but also a touchstone moment—a reminder of one of some of the key themes at the core of GOP philosophy in an age when the sideshow issues often lead the party of Lincoln and Reagan astray.

“Do we want our children to inherit our hopes and dreams,” Rubio asked in soaring language, “or do we want them to inherit our problems? Mitt Romney believes that if we succeed in changing the direction of our country, our children and grandchildren will be the most prosperous generation ever, and their achievements will astonish the world.”

And that’s when I heard it—the words of someone sitting in my section, one row behind me and perhaps two or three seats over, spoken even through an ocean of noise—“he sounds a bit like John F. Kennedy or Robert Kennedy when he talks!” A casual observation, and perhaps a slight stretch as well—but the comment cut to the heart of a question for Republicans.

Romney, though he seems in stature and demeanor older, nevertheless qualifies as a Baby Boomer, having been born in 1947.

If elected, the former governor would be only the third person of that generation to become president, after George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Paul Ryan is Generation X. Indeed, Romney’s selection of Ryan as running mate was carefully calculated to add some form of direct appeal to the next generations. For decades both parties have sought unsuccessfully to recapture or reinvent the special magic that John F. Kennedy, and his brother Robert, bestowed on so many Americans. Obama seemed, at the time of his ascent and election, to have exerted precisely this form of magnetic sway on the hopes and aspirations of so many. But the very attributes which made him appealing to so many voters—an ability to transcend race, the skill to create a new national narrative, the oratory of consensus—proved largely ineffective when it came to the gritty business of governing.

Rubio, at 41 and a Gen-X’er like Ryan, represents not only ethnic diversity but also a generational outreach by Republicans—now, and in the future. Rubio may be well known within the borders of Florida and reasonably familiar to Republican insiders, but his speech at the GOP convention was meant for a much wider audience—and not just those tuning in to size up Romney as an alternative to President Obama. Rubio was being watched by many who will have the chance to cast votes well into the future.

Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as running mate was as good as it gets in the complex business of making that first major management decision. But Rubio didn’t miss the final cut by much, and clearly many Republicans see the young Senator as one of the brightest stars on the horizon.

Article filed from Tampa, Florida. Thanks go to Edward Murphy, Rick Hartley, Lenny Curry, and Kevin and Lindsey Mineer for their kind assistance.