Marco Rubio just announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, sounding several very promising themes before describing the one that is actually likely to define his candidacy.
First, he described his family’s immigrant success story, which he uses to establish himself as a champion of the middle class—specifically the lower-middle-class strivers like his parents.
My father became a bartender. My mother a cashier, a maid, and a Kmart stock clerk. They never made it big. But they were successful. Two immigrants with little money or education found stable jobs, owned a home, retired with security and gave all four of their children a life far better than their own.
My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream. But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible:
Hard working families living paycheck to paycheck, one unexpected expense away from disaster…
Young Americans, unable to start a career, a business or a family, because they owe thousands in student loans for degrees that did not lead to jobs…
And small business owners, left to struggle under the weight of more taxes, more regulations and more government.
Why is this happening in a country that for over two centuries has been defined by equality of opportunity?
As I noted before, Ted Cruz also made a surprisingly strong appeal on this same issue. Or not so surprising, given that he shares a similar background as the son of an ambitious Cuban immigrant.
It is interesting to note that the Republicans, once derided as the party of the country club elites, now have at least two people in the presidential race who can make this pitch to the lower middle class in a very personal and convincing way. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has: Hillary Clinton. Who says she wants to make the election about the middle class.
She’d better hope the Republicans nominate Jeb Bush, because if she wants to talk about the middle class with Rubio or Cruz (or Walker, or just about anybody else), they’re going to have way more credibility on the topic than a woman who hasn’t driven her own car or bought her own groceries in decades.
Rubio also talked about being a candidate of the future instead of the past, which is smart packaging for someone preparing to run against Hillary Clinton. Hence this line: “They are busy looking backward, so they do not see how jobs and prosperity today depend on our ability to compete in a global economy. So our leaders put us at a disadvantage by taxing, borrowing and regulating like it’s 1999.” Gee, who do you think was in the White House in 1999?
In case you didn’t get it the first time, Rubio offers us the odd beauty of this sentence: “Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday.” He added: “We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them.” So he’s positioning himself specifically as the fresh-faced alternative to the ultimate establishment candidate.
But Rubio’s real distinguishing characteristic among the Republican field is captured in his repeated references to a “new American Century,” a phrase he repeated over and over again, particularly in the second half of his speech, along with “American exceptionalism.”
[T]hey have forgotten that when America fails to lead, global chaos inevitably follows, so they appease our enemies, betray our allies and weaken our military.
At the turn of the 19th century, a generation of Americans harnessed the power of the Industrial Age and transformed this country into the leading economy in the world. And the 20th century became the American Century.
Now, the time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American Century.
Later on, he spells out what this means for foreign policy.
[I]f America accepts the mantle of global leadership, by abandoning this administration’s dangerous concessions to Iran, and its hostility to Israel; by reversing the hollowing out of our military; by giving our men and women in uniform the resources, care and gratitude they deserve; by no longer being passive in the face of Chinese and Russian aggression; and by ending the near total disregard for the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world; then our nation will be safer, the world more stable, and our people more prosperous.
Rubio has already carved out a reputation as being the most hawkish of the candidates, and by “hawkish” I mean that his foreign policy is closest to that of interventionists like John McCain and George W. Bush.
And there’s the rub. Bush’s foreign policy is not yet fashionable again among general election voters. Nor even among Republican voters. That’s partly because the Tea Party movement and the reaction against President Obama’s policies have brought a core of libertarian-leaning voters back into the Republican fold, and they bring with them a more anti-interventionist policy—though it is telling that even Rand Paul has been compelled to take a more hawkish line as he runs for president. Losing two straight elections also produced an enduring bitterness against Bush that turned some former hawks against foreign intervention, particularly in the Middle East.
I wouldn’t underestimate Rubio’s ability to break out from the pack and gain a public following. He’s charismatic, has an inspiring message, and can connect to the concerns of the striving middle class—all of which are great political assets. Though he shares a lot of those characteristics with Ted Cruz, who has the advantage of a more solid reputation with the party’s conservative base, Rubio may benefit from a style that is less hard-edged, making him more difficult to vilify in the minds of the average voter.
But if his core distinguishing characteristic is his foreign policy, so far this is not an election that looks as if it will be decided on that issue. Nor is it one on which the public is particularly clamoring for his more hawkish solutions. So at this point, it looks like Rubio is likely to fulfill the same role in the Republican primary debates that Rick Santorum filled the last time around: the hawk who devotes himself to beating up on the squishy anti-interventionism of the candidate named “Paul.” It’s a useful service, to be sure, but it’s not what gets you the nomination.
Unless. Unless there is a major crisis in the next year that suddenly focuses everyone’s attention on foreign policy and makes Rubio look like the one person who was talking about the right issues all along.
This is a very real possibility. Consider the way the current president has upended our national alliances, so that we now seem to be better friends with the Castro regime in Cuba than with the people and government of Israel. Consider the chaos that is spreading across the Middle East, from Libya to Yemen. And most of all, consider the continued strength of the Islamic State, which has already inspired bloody terrorist attacks in Australia and France. What if an ISIS terrorist shoots up a Starbucks in Manhattan, or launches an even bigger strike? What if there is “another September 11,” or something close enough to it? Then it’s easy to see how Rubio vaults past everyone else.
We might consider Rubio the Republicans’ emergency backup candidate, to be deployed in case of a foreign policy disaster. You never know when you might need one, especially today.