As he prepares to deliver the formal Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida faces both an extraordinary opportunity and the burden of being viewed as his party’s next best hope for the future.
Dubbed “The Republican Savior” by Time and the embodiment of GOP optimism by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, the youthful Rubio has rocketed to the forefront of national GOP politics with compelling conservative oratory, a powerful personal narrative and a remarkable skill at bridging differences between the Tea Party and more mainstream Republican conservatives.
The son of middle-class Cuban immigrants, Rubio is proving to be the perfect antidote to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s poor performance against Obama in 2012, when the former Massachusetts governor embraced harsh immigration reform policies and urged the 11 million undocumented immigrants to “self-deport.”
When Republican leaders and activists look down the road to the 2016 presidential sweepstakes, Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie invariably are mentioned in the same breath as the most promising of potential candidates. And tonight, Rubio’s talents will be on full display—and without a safety net—as he delivers the rebuttal to Obama’s fifth major address to a joint session of Congress.
Yet political reputations wax and wane in Washington, and a misstep at this stage can often have serious long term repercussions. The ghost of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Feb. 24, 2009 response to Obama’s first major address to Congress undoubtedly will hang over Rubio’s speech tonight.
Jindal at the time was an up-and-coming young governor raised by Indian-immigrant parents who had just performed admirably in the wake of a terrible hurricane that clobbered his state (a la Chris Christie). Republican leaders chose to showcase him, but the speech was so weak that it nearly destroyed Jindal’s career.
That is not likely to happen with Rubio, who left no doubt about his oratorical prowess after his speech last summer at the Republican National Convention. Just as Obama broke into the national political limelight in 2004 as the keynote speaker at his party’s convention in Boston, Rubio delivered a spellbinding blend of his life story as one of four children of Cuban immigrants and a stinging rebuke of Obama’s policies. At one point, Rubio brought the convention crowd to its feel when he declared: “Our problem is not that he’s a bad person. Our problem is that he’s a bad president.”
Rubio can be counted on to deliver an equally biting response to Obama’s State of the Union address tonight – taking the president to task for what Republicans insist are failed economic and budget policies that have produced a $16.5 trillion national debt, continued hardship for the middle class, and persistently high unemployment.
In a pre-taped speech for simultaneous broadcast on Spanish-language television, Rubio said he intends to discuss “how limited government and free enterprise have helped make my family’s dreams come true in America.”
“Rubio's singular challenge is to fulfill the purpose of his selection--to connect to Hispanics that increasingly are tuning out the GOP, judging by election returns,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “And historic bilingual response is a creative solution, and we'll see whether it helps at all.
What’s more, Rubio has to adopt a style and tone that can actually hold viewers. If relatively few see the response, it will have little effect. This is a daunting task.
Viewership of the State of the Union itself is well down and may continue to plummet. Nearly 52.4 million viewers tuned in for Obama’s first State of the Union address in 2009, but it was downhill after that. In January 2012, barely 37.8 million people watched Obama’s speech on television. Viewership of the opposing party’s response is typically rock bottom.
As Time’s adulatory profile noted, Rubio not only is a child of immigrants but also “a child of the conservative movement,” an ambitious ideologue and political operative “who speaks partisan Republican with the fluency of a native.” Rubio's political career began with his election to the West Miami City Commission in 1998. He was elected in the Florida House of Representatives the following year. In 2009, Rubio won his campaign for the U.S. Senate, crushing Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who ran as an independent in the general election.
Rubio was catapulted to power thanks to the strong support of the Tea Party, yet since arriving in Washington he has sought to steer clear of that polarizing label by reaching out to more mainstream conservatives, as well as occasionally working with Democrats.
On foreign policy he has embraced a neoconservative perspective, and on domestic economic issues he has taken a strong anti-tax, anti-deficit stand. He staunchly opposed the Violence Against Women Act, the repeal of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, Obama’s health care reforms, Wall Street financial reforms, and raising the debt ceiling.
Yet on immigration, Rubio has displayed some independence from many in his party. He joined forces with a bipartisan group of eight senators last month to draft a set of principles for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants. If the GOP has any hope of reversing its woeful deficiency in support from Hispanics and young people, Rubio may provide the key by pursuing this bipartisan approach.
The 41-year-old freshman senator stuck his neck out by arguing in support of the bipartisan plan during interviews with conservative radio powerhouse Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity of Fox News. But Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and a slew of other conservatives sharply attacked Rubio for getting sucked into an immigration plan that they say is tantamount to granting amnesty.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., last week called Rubio “amazingly naive” for signing onto the proposal. National Review columnist Rich Lowry slammed the senate plan in a column entitled “Marco Rubio’s Bad Deal.”
Rubio has capitalized over the years on his personal story of growing up as the son of Cuban immigrants, though his exaggerations have gotten occasionally generated huge political controversy.
During his rise to prominence, he described himself as the son of political exiles forced to leave Cuba by Fidel Castro’s regime. The Washington Post and the St. Petersburg Times reported that his parents immigrated to the United States three years before Castro took power. Rubio conceded he erred in his account but said he still considered them exiles, because they couldn’t return to his home country.
Part of Rubio’s credibility in conservative circles also comes from his unique religious upbringing. As a child, he was born Roman Catholic, baptized Mormon, and then as a sixth grader baptized Catholic. Rubio started worshipping at a Florida evangelical church, Christ Fellowship, in 2000 and still listens to its podcasts, even though he has rejoined the Catholic fold. Rubio is quite literally the Republican party’s gateway from Romney (Mormon) to Rick Santorum (Catholic) to the GOP electorate (more than half of which is evangelical, according to The Economist).
Rubio cited his spiritual beliefs when dealing with Obama in an interview with Christianity Today.
“Our faith teaches us to be as gentle as lambs but as wise as serpents,” he said.
The Fiscal Times’ Josh Boak contributed to this report