Marco Rubio winning the Republican nomination would be like Jordan Spieth winning the Masters. We would be just so darned proud of him. Like the 21-year-old Spieth, Rubio is the kind of clean-cut, hard-working, attractive young man we would like our daughters to marry. Would we also like him as president? Could he beat Hillary Clinton?
Maybe. Here’s what Rubio has that Hillary doesn’t: authenticity. Hillary could raise $2.5 billion in campaign money – an astonishing number projected recently by The New York Times -- but money can’t buy authenticity.
Upstaged by Hillary’s anti-climactic video announcement that she was running for president, Senator Rubio also threw his hat in the ring on Sunday. More accurately, he posted a tweet with audio suggesting he would make a VERY BIG announcement on Monday at Miami’s Freedom Tower. Unhappily, the recording sounded like it was made in the midst of a hurricane; if he’d actually had a hat, you would have looked for it to land somewhere in Oklahoma. As it was, Rubio was almost inaudible – not the best set-up for his expected launch.
There could not have been a greater contrast to the two-minute video revealing that Hillary is Ready. Hollywood slick, Mrs. Clinton’s mini-film checked important boxes – blacks, Hispanics, Asians, seniors, gays and of course women. The box least checked was Hillary herself – what she thinks and what she wants to do as president.
Hillary’s video perfectly captures her expected campaign. Safe, noncontroversial, expensive. A campaign that will keep Hillary at a distance, where she is comfortable, away from unruly crowds and challenging reporters.
Rubio’s video reminds us of when he awkwardly grabbed a glass of water off-camera while rebutting President Obama’s State of the Union Speech in 2013. Presenting the GOP response to the SOTUS is hard duty and has felled other rising politicians – Bobby Jindal comes to mind; Rubio’s sudden lurch to slack his thirst might have been the end of him. As inconsequential as it was, not being prepared in such circumstances suggested amateurism, just like Sunday’s video.
Against Hillary, who has been running for decades, such clumsiness might be welcome. Rubio later joked about the incident, emerging more likeable and “real” as a result. Youth and energy are powerful weapons against tired and cynical.
Rubio’s great advantage in the cluttered GOP field, and against Hillary Clinton, is his undeniable, enthusiastic love of country. While President Obama travels the world denouncing the shortcomings of the U.S., Rubio pronounces our nation “the most powerful force for good the world has ever known.” He doesn’t hedge his bets, or engage in faculty-lounge debates. Like many immigrants and children of those who have fought to gain our shores, Rubio is passionate about the freedoms and opportunities the U.S. offers. Like Reagan, his sincerity is without doubt, and contagious.
Those elements enlivened his announcement speech, which was, again, so different from any speech Hillary is likely to make. Her studied, focus-group sensitized, stiff pronouncements never have heart – because they are not from the heart. Philosophically, Hillary leans left, but the circumstances of her life – being married to a president, attaining great wealth, living like a queen – have made her embrace of the common man stiff in the extreme. Her current mini-van trip to Iowa appears absurd, with the “one of the people” aura obscured by her Secret Service detail. Even the van’s cunning “Scooby” nickname turns out to have been used before, belying her aide’s assertion that Mrs. Clinton was delighted to have just thought it up. Good grief.
Polling puts Mrs. Clinton way ahead of Rubio today. But Rubio’s career has consisted of one upset political victory after another, some in defiance of impossibly lopsided odds. He won his Senate seat in 2010 despite polls that at one time had him a 35 point underdog. His rival in the race, Florida governor Charlie Crist, attracted establishment GOP backing and funding, but became a proxy for everything the Tea Party despised, including President Obama.
Two issues will loom large if the Florida senator wins the GOP nomination and squares off against Clinton. The first is foreign policy where, as a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committee, Rubio has staked out a hawkish platform. He is critical of Obama’s overtures to Cuba, supportive of Israel and opposes the framework of a deal with Iran. This is complicated for Mrs. Clinton, since she too has been more assertive on the world stage than the president she served for four years. She can hardly distance herself from Obama’s lack of engagement while campaigning on her stint as Secretary of State. Also, she will lose the already-tepid support of progressives in her party by championing our military.
Immigration will also emerge as a major issue in this campaign. Conservatives were critical of Rubio’s 2013 participation in the so-called Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group that worked to craft immigration reform. He has since stressed border security, to mollify the right, but he is likely to continue to press for some legal path for our 11 million undocumented residents. This will be troublesome for him, but Hillary will be linked to Obama’s unpopular amnesty program. As a son of immigrants, and as an Hispanic, Rubio may get a pass for being sympathetic to that community’s issues; on the plus side his background could help build GOP support from Latinos.
The bottom line is that Rubio provides voters a sharp break with the unpopular policies of President Obama; Hillary does not. He is inexperienced, but genuine. Her decades in the public view add gravitas, but when The Economist runs a cover asking, “What Does Hillary Stand For?” it’s clear those years have failed to define a candidate. In sum, Rubio could surprise.
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