Dear Generation X: Don't believe the Marco Rubio hype

Rubio is a severely conservative millennial in a 44-year-old's Gen X clothing

Published December 15, 2015 8:48PM (EST)

 Marco Rubio (AP/John Locher)
Marco Rubio (AP/John Locher)

At least since he officially announced his race for the presidency in April, Marco Rubio has been playing himself up as the young guy in the mix.

“The time has come for our generation to lead the way towards a new American century,” he said at Miami’s Freedom Tower. “Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. But we can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past.”

Referring to Hillary Clinton, he continued: “Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday. Yesterday is over, and we are never going back.”

He’s directed the same kind of rhetoric toward Jeb Bush back when he was a threat.

So whether he's claiming to be the youngest guy in the room or pledging his Gen X bona fides – like his fondness for Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, and West Coast hip hop – Rubio has shrewdly positioned himself as the youthful (for the office, anyway) alternative to the Boomer candidates. (Is a Pavement T-shirt and a crush on Winona Ryder next?)

Some observers have doubted he can get anywhere with his pitch, though. Ana Marie Cox, for instance, called him a “Gen-X Fraud.”

Take away Rubio’s biography and look at his positions and he becomes less the voice of his generation and more Benjamin Button. If I told you about a candidate that was anti-marriage equality, anti-immigration reform (for now), anti-pot decriminalization, pro-government surveillance, and in favor of international intervention but against doing something about climate change, what would you guess the candidate’s age to be? On all of those issues, Rubio’s position is not the one shared by most young people. The Guardian dubbed him the “John McCain of the millennial set,” which isn’t fair to McCain, who at least has averred that climate change exists.

It’s not clear if his fellow Xers are persuaded. But weirdly, Rubio seems to be getting through to millennials much better than we’d expect, given their reputation for liberalism. An insightful Slate story based on a new NBC News poll describes Rubio but matching Hillary Clinton with voters from 18 to 34 -- despite the tendency of Democrats to capture the young -- and slightly beating her (48 to 45 percent) among all voters.

As friendly and sane as Rubio might appear on the surface — considering the current GOP competition — the idea of him becoming president is chilling.

"I think Marco is a severe conservative, really far to the right, but probably the most talented spokesman the severe right could ever hope for," Dan Gelber, who led Florida House Democrats while Rubio served as speaker of the house, told NBC News. "He has a televangelical ability to communicate.” Mother Jones describes his energy plan as “Drill, Drill, Drill, and Drill Some More.” His conservative position on the environment, as well as on minimum wage, abortion, marijuana, and other issues, has him out of step with a lot of Gen X voters.

Even scarier is the thought that Rubio – though he was born in 1971 – is in some ways culturally a millennial, just part of a rising conservative wedge. (He’s got their soaring optimism and love of social media.) And there may be a wave of right-leaning millennials on their way, anyway. As Jamelle Bouie writes for Slate, these younger millennials are very different than the young voters who helped elect Obama:

…the most liberal millennials are those that came of age under President George W. Bush, while the most conservative ones are those that came of political age under President Obama and have faced a sluggish and stagnant economy. Far from embracing Rubio and the Republican Party, these voters may just be skeptical of the Democratic Party’s ability to deliver economic growth and opportunity. To this point, the November unemployment rate was 15.3 percent for people aged 18 to 19, and 9.6 percent for people aged 20 to 24.

Similarly, the New York Times has reported that women in their 20s don’t seem to be as dedicated to Hillary as older generations. She can't count on them.

Rubio, then, seems to have the demographic tide on his side. So who can stop his momentum? Gen Xers don’t have the numbers that the Boomers and millennials do. But we still vote. Rubio may numerically one of us, but he’s also a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Here’s a call to other Xers: Put down your Liz Phair and Public Enemy LPs, turn off your Noah Baumbach movies, and call this guy out when he speaks for his generation. His birthday may make him seem like one of us, but as Chuck D would say, don’t believe the hype.

What If Rubio Is The Republican Nominee?

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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