Rubio's 2016 gambit: Maintaining his status as the GOP's savior-in-waiting

Rubio is preparing for a presidential run, and keeping alive the idea that he holds the key to the GOP's future

Published January 26, 2015 4:44PM (EST)

Marco Rubio                               (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Marco Rubio (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

ABC News reported late last week that Marco Rubio is instructing his underlings and hangers-on to start getting ready for 2016 presidential campaign. “Aides expect Rubio will make a final decision in the comings weeks,” ABC noted, “but his schedule for the next month already looks more like the schedule of a presidential candidate than a senator.”

News of Rubio’s plans came as a bit of a surprise. Many people assumed that Jeb Bush’s aggressive pre-campaign maneuvering would crowd Rubio out, given that they run in the same circles and beg for money from the same people. The still-developing 2016 field already has a Tea Party crank (Ted Cruz), an outsider “change” agent (Rand Paul), a boring conservative (Scott Walker), and more establishment darlings than should be permitted (Jeb, Mitt Romney, Chris Christie). “What vacuum in the conservative political spectrum does Rubio fill today?” asked Hot Air’s Jazz Shaw.

If I had to guess why Rubio is contemplating running for president, I’d say it’s because people have been telling him for years that he’s the predestined savior of the Republican Party, and the one man who can unite conservatives with the Republican establishment and bring along enough Hispanics to give the GOP control of the White House. He’s done pretty much everything in his power to sabotage that reputation, but appearances must be kept up.

Rubio’s foibles on immigration are well-documented. He was a proponent of immigration reform long before Mitt Romney’s electoral pummeling forced the GOP to realize it had a problem with Latino voters, and he even championed a version of the DREAM Act in 2012. In 2013 he led the bipartisan effort in the Senate to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill and even punched back against conservatives who accused him of promoting “amnesty.” When his bill stalled in the House and Republicans resumed their hostility towards immigration reform, Rubio lied about his own legislation and retreated from his own principles in order to regain favor with conservatives. You can now find Rubio, who once wanted to give DREAM Act-eligible kids “a chance to get right what their parents got wrong,” lecturing those same kids as lawbreakers so he can curry favor with South Carolina primary voters.

But conservatives still have no reason to trust him. Rubio now says he’s against comprehensive reform and he blames Obama for everything that went wrong, but he still favors a brand of reform that provides legal status for undocumented immigrants. For much of the Republican base, that’s “amnesty,” regardless of how it’s packaged.

Another big piece of the Rubio legend is his supposed foreign policy expertise. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar argued that Rubio should be the 2016 GOP frontrunner based in part on his “background in foreign policy” (as evidenced by a speech he gave “calling for a more muscular foreign policy and advocating for increased defense spending”). Rubio certainly is outspoken on matters of foreign policy and national security, but he’s often incoherent and self-contradictory.

In the fight against ISIS he’s managed to take just about every position possible. When the administration unveiled its strategy for combatting the terrorist group, Rubio attacked it and proposed his own strategy… which was identical to the White House’s plan. When the administration actually put its plan in motion, Rubio praised them for belatedly adopting a strategy he’d been advocating for months. When the White House’s strategy stalled out, Rubio said it was a bad plan from the beginning (even though it was his plan too).

So where can Rubio fit in to the 2016 scheme? Jim Pethokoukis thinks Rubio can be “The Man With The Plan,” a bold and fresh conservative reformer who is ready to find new and exciting ways to lessen the tax burden for wealthy people. Rubio’s new book, American Dreams, lays out a governing vision that promises lots of exciting innovation, delivered mainly through magic and buzzwords. I suppose it’s possible that Rubio will emerge as the policy wonk of the 2016 Republican field, but he’s still held back in that regard by his heresies on immigration reform. The long-term nursing of grudges and resentments is a hallmark of conservative politics, and once you get on their shitlist, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get off it.

Whatever his thinking, Rubio has an interest in maintaining this idea that he’s the man who holds the key to the Republican Party’s future. If he runs now he can make a show of being interested and important, raise a ton of money, and then drop out after discovering through prayer and reflection that he can get more done for the people of Florida as a member of the U.S. Senate. Reporters and pundits will say it just wasn’t his time but he has a bright future ahead of him, and the legend of Marco Rubio: Republican Savior will continue.

By Simon Maloy

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2016 Elections Conservatives Dream Act Immigration Reform Isis Islamic State Jeb Bush Marco Rubio Republicans