November 28, 2015


The Opportunist : Marco Rubio's political dexterity. (EVAN OSNOS, 11_30_15, The New Yorker)

If the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, the Party will be offering the oldest candidate that it has ever run in a general election, and Rubio has taken to saying, "Never in the modern history of this country has the political class in both parties been more out of touch with our country than it is right now." But in policy terms Rubio can appear older than his years. His opposition to same-sex marriage, to raising the minimum wage, and to restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba puts him out of step with most American Latinos. In the Spanish-language media, he is sometimes described as un joven viejo--a young fogey.

After a summer submerged in a raucous primary field, Rubio had recently climbed into third place. He was ahead of Jeb Bush, his former mentor, and far behind Trump and Ben Carson. Trump's campaign marched to the sound of a dirge--"The American Dream is dead," he told crowds--and Rubio presented himself as a sunny alternative, a way out of Trump's sulfurous moment. "We're very blessed to have so many good people running for President," he said earnestly to the crowd in Boulder City.

I had seen Rubio at half a dozen events--in Iowa, New York, Nevada--and his speeches were blemished only by a tic: he occasionally slips into a singsong cadence, turning his story into a breathy schoolboy lullaby about the "new American century." On the whole, he is impressively consistent. Rubio in Dubuque in October was nearly indistinguishable from Rubio in Miami in April, the political equivalent of a well-managed restaurant chain: "Repeal and replace Obamacare," scrap President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran "on Day One," create the "most affordable business taxes in the world"--all the while heeding the populist frustrations of the moment. Vowing to remake higher education, he said, "When I'm President, before you take on student loans you're going to know how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree. You're going to know that the market for philosophers has tightened over the last two thousand years." In 2012, Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, spoke worshipfully of "job creators." Rubio rarely mentions them. He returns, over and over, to his central task: how to make helping the poor and the middle class a Republican issue. He tells crowds, "We can no longer allow big government to be used as a tool of crony capitalism."

But, at bottom, his campaign is only partly about policy. In a contest against a real-estate tycoon and the son and brother of former Presidents, Rubio is campaigning on the vision of a country where "the son of a bartender and a maid" can reach the White House. "It's not just my story--it is literally our story," he told the Boulder City crowd. "In this nation, we are all but a generation or two removed from someone who made our future the very purpose of their lives. Whether or not we remain a special country will be determined by whether or not that journey is still possible for the people trying to make it now."

The applause was long and loud, and as Rubio climbed down from the stage to pose for selfies I asked the first couple I saw what they made of him. Cornelia Wallace, a retired nurse from the Chicago suburbs, said, "Well, I've got tears welled up in my eyes." She laughed at her own reaction. "It touched my heart," she said, and shrugged. "I get a passion from him that I don't get from the others." [...]

For Republican strategists, the loss of the 2012 Presidential election contained signals that spoke to the Party's future. Latinos are the largest minority group in America, but in 2012 "there was more talk about electrified fences than there was about higher education and tuition," Peter Wehner, a Republican speechwriter and strategist who served in the past three Republican Administrations, told me. "You can't win elections when you do that." Romney, who had called for the "self-deportation" of immigrants, received just twenty-seven per cent of the Latino vote--seventeen points less than what George W. Bush received in 2004. For years, Republicans have believed that they should be faring better with Hispanic voters. Ronald Reagan liked to say that Latinos are Republicans but "just don't know it yet." Lionel Sosa, a Texas adman who was hired to run Reagan's outreach program to Latinos, recalled, "Ronald Reagan told me, back in the 1980 race, 'Latinos are conservative people. As Republicans, we share the same basic conservative values. We believe in hard work. We believe in family.' "

For Wehner and other reform-minded conservatives, the lessons of 2012 were also economic. "The middle class felt vulnerable and nervous, because of stagnant wages for twenty-five years and skyrocketing costs in health care and higher education," Wehner told me. "The Party needed an agenda, and it was out of touch with middle-class concerns." The reformers urged the Party to get over same-sex marriage (a "losing battle"), focus on economic anxiety, and, above all, identify a leader who could articulate a vision that reached beyond Party orthodoxy. As Wehner put it, "You need a figure like a Bill Clinton or a Tony Blair, who can reassure the base and inspire them, but also to signal to people who are not voting for you, 'We get it.' "

Whit Ayres, a leading Republican analyst who has been Rubio's pollster for the past five years, drew a somewhat different lesson. He agreed about the demographic reality. "Unfortunately for Republicans, the math is only going to get worse," he wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. "Groups that form the core of G.O.P. support--older whites, blue-collar whites, married people and rural residents--are declining as a proportion of the electorate. Groups that lean Democratic--minorities, young people and single women--are growing." He calculated that, in order to win, a Republican Presidential candidate would need at least forty per cent of the Latino vote. But in "2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America," published earlier this year, Ayres made a subtle distinction between style and substance. He wrote that polls have found "no evidence that America has shifted to the left." In his view, America remains a center-right country, the Party's core ideas are sound, and the problem lies in finding "the right candidate, the right message, and the right tone." He tested a range of ways of presenting core Republican ideas and composed a list of dos and don'ts. Don't say we have to reform entitlements or "we will never balance the budget." Do say that entitlement reform is "the only way to save popular programs."

Posted by at November 28, 2015 8:55 AM