Demolition Derby in Florida
Can Marco Rubio prevail?
Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By FRED BARNES
Credit: Gary Locke
One speech, delivered often, has rarely meant more in politics than it does to Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Florida. Why? Because the Rubio campaign is the speech, with its all-encompassing message on domestic and foreign issues, and Rubio’s Senate bid is the most watched race in the country this year.
For conservatives, he is the most important candidate in the midterm election. His defeat would deprive them of a new national star. His victory would mean the emergence of a leader among Republicans and a powerful, young conservative voice. Rubio is 39.
He’s already a national figure. “Everywhere I go I’m asked about Marco,” says former governor Jeb Bush. “The race hasn’t gotten as much attention in Florida as it has around the country.” Bush says, “Mark me down as a huge supporter.” In February, Republican senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina endorsed Rubio with this catchy line: “I’d rather have 30 Rubios [in the Senate] than 60 Arlen Specters.”
At 35, Rubio was House speaker in the Florida legislature. A more surprising Rubio feat: driving popular governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican party. Crist was the prohibitive favorite to win the Senate primary when Rubio jumped into the race last year. One poll had Crist 35 points ahead. But once Rubio opened a large lead, Crist decided to run as an independent.
The defeat of Rubio in November would probably mean the election of Crist. Since dropping out of the Republican primary in April, Crist has been changing his positions from right to left with breathtaking speed, raising the expectation—the near certainty, really—he would join Democrats in the Senate.
Thus a Crist victory, which is quite possible, would be a loss of a seat for Republicans and almost surely deny them a chance to gain the 10 seats needed to take control of the Senate. The winner will succeed Republican senator George LeMieux, appointed by Crist when Mel Martinez resigned in 2009. LeMieux, Crist’s campaign manager, gubernatorial chief of staff, and close friend, advised Crist to stay in the Republican race. When he didn’t, LeMieux endorsed Rubio.
By the end of the campaign in November, nearly every voter in Florida with a television or a computer or who has attended a Rubio event should have heard Rubio’s speech or at least pieces of it in TV ads or online videos. In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.
Rubio gave the essence of the speech in his farewell address to the Florida legislature in March 2009. He delivered it again at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last February. He repeated parts of it during his debate with Crist on Fox News Sunday in March. I heard him give the speech to the Florida Family Policy Council in May and to business groups in Orlando in July.
The core of the speech is a paean to American exceptionalism. He mentions the word “exceptional” repeatedly, perhaps to highlight the contrast with President Obama, who suggested to a French audience last year that America is no more exceptional than any other country. The election, Rubio told the Southeast Building Conference, will decide whether America will “continue to be exceptional or be like everybody else.”
At CPAC, Rubio dwelt on the theme of exceptionalism. “I am privileged to be a citizen of the single greatest society in all of human history,” he said.
Rubio often cites one of Ronald Reagan’s stories. A Cuban exile told Reagan, “Don’t feel sorry for us. We had somewhere to go. Where are Americans going to go if they lose this great country?” The idea is “you could lose what made us exceptional,” Rubio explains. “Reagan kind of represented this re-embrace of the notion that America could remain exceptional.” Now Rubio does, or will if he’s elected. “It’s certainly not inevitable” that America will become “just another important country. It’s a choice.”
America’s greatness “didn’t happen automatically, didn’t happen accidentally, and won’t continue automatically,” he says. Voters must choose the future they want. Here’s how Rubio described the choice to me:
That’s a pretty stark choice. But “people are looking for voices that offer them serious choices, policy choices,” Rubio insists.
The key point in Rubio’s speech, apart from his defense of American exceptionalism, is economic growth. “You can’t build your national defenses if your economy is not generating revenue that will pay for it, and you can’t pay down your debt,” he says.
His speech emphasizes the big picture, but Rubio also has a wonkish underside. Last week, he put out a dozen “simple ways to cut spending,” starting with cuts of 10 percent in the budgets of the White House and Congress. Earlier, he announced 12 ways to “grow our economy” and 11 to “help the Gulf Coast economy to recover.” His economic ideas include permanently extending the Bush tax cuts and ending “job-destroying double taxation of capital gains, dividends, or death.”
In 2005, Rubio circulated books with blank pages, asking people to write down their “innovative ideas for Florida’s future.” It was a stunt that worked. The next year, he published a book with the 100 best ideas. “We passed all 100 of them in the House [and] 57 of them became law or policy in the state of Florida,” he says. The ideas “are all over the place.”
As a candidate, Rubio is rigidly disciplined. He refuses to discuss campaign tactics and strategy. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed him last month about extremism in the Tea Party movement, Rubio stressed his free market message. Tea Party people “want to see policies implemented at the highest levels of government that will keep us exceptional,” he said.
When I interviewed Rubio, he answered nearly every question with snatches from his speech, no matter what I asked. Will a significant bloc of Democrats vote for Crist, as polls currently indicate? “I don’t really break the electorate down that way,” Rubio said. Then he invoked his idea of an electorate that chooses between candidates who like the country’s direction and those who don’t.
Who might the Obama White House throw its weight behind in the general election, Crist or the Democratic nominee? When his four kids are grown, “they’re not going to be talking about who the White House supported,” he said. They’re going to be talking about whether the country chose the right direction in 2010.
Rather than challenge Crist in the Republican primary, Rubio was urged to run for state attorney general. What was his wife’s advice?
Were the CPAC address and others I’d heard his basic speech? “It’s the basic message,” Rubio said. “Our message hasn’t changed one bit.” Indeed it hasn’t. Then he summarized it succinctly. What are Florida’s problems? Chiefly unemployment (11.5 percent), he said. Again, he delivered a capsule version of his speech.
The ability to stick to a fundamental message and ignore the small stuff is the mark of a good candidate. Recall the politicians who were skilled at this. Reagan was. So was George W. Bush. Rubio is in good company.
But all of this—the message, Rubio’s strength as a speaker, his energy and passion—doesn’t guarantee him a safe path to the Senate. “No one’s ever seen a race like this in Florida,” says LeMieux. It’s unusually complicated. A Quinnipiac poll last week gave Crist a 5 or 6 point lead over Rubio, depending on who wins the Democratic primary on August 24, congressman Kendrick Meek or billionaire Jeff Greene. Rubio was ahead by 2 points in a Rasmussen poll of likely voters.
When Crist switched to independent, he was regarded as a goner. But he’s recovered. His handling of the Gulf oil spill has been skillful, and his flip-flops on issues haven’t hurt him appreciably. “Republicans see it as treason,” says Quinnipiac’s Peter Brown. “Independents see it in a different light. Democrats like it.”
At the moment, Crist is getting a quarter of the Republican vote. This probably won’t last. “This is a great year to be a Republican,” says LeMieux, a perceptive analyst of Florida politics. “A lot of those Republicans who like Governor Crist personally are going to come home.” And vote for Rubio.
This means Crist’s ability to attract Democratic votes is critical. He’s hired Josh Isay, a former aide to Democratic senator Chuck Schumer, and his Democratic consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, along with several other Democratic strategists.
The White House surely could have blocked Democratic operatives from signing on with Crist. But neither President Obama nor Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, intervened. Obama endorsed Meek months ago but has done little to help him. Meek got 13 percent in the Quinnipiac survey.
A competitive Democratic nominee would actually help Rubio by keeping Democrats from defecting to Crist. “I can’t imagine the Obama administration’s political machine abandoning the Democratic nominee, especially if it’s Meek,” Jeb Bush says.
Meek, who is African-American, would insure a large black turnout that votes for him, not Crist. Greene, who leads Meek at the moment, might drive blacks to Crist, but he could cause a problem with independents. “Because of Greene’s unlimited checkbook, it is quite possible he could hurt Crist more among independents than he would help him among blacks,” according to a Florida consultant.
Despite the complications, Rubio’s prospects are brighter than Crist’s. He outraised Crist in the second quarter, $4.5 million to $1.8 million, and should continue to. Just as important, Rubio can rely on a massive Republican voter turnout operation. Whatever turnout machinery Crist puts together will be woefully overmatched. Meek and Greene? Their chances are minimal.
So I’m betting on Rubio. He’s more conservative than the state of Florida, but not by much in 2010. As Jeb Bush says, “He’s the right candidate at the right time. He’s one of the most inspirational speakers I know. He lifts people’s spirits. The message is we can do great things.”
Sounds like Reagan, doesn’t he? There are similarities. Reagan relied on a single big speech, delivered over and over with minor alterations. So does Rubio. Reagan was a conviction politician with strong patriotic feelings and an optimistic outlook about reviving America. So is Rubio. Reagan was disciplined in politics, as is Rubio. Reagan read the conservative classics. Rubio read Atlas Shrugged during his first session (9 weeks) of the Florida legislature, then read it again. He read the Federalist Papers after each Republican member was given a copy.
On the other hand, Reagan was inordinately likeable, had a mischievous sense of humor, and confessed that having been an actor really came in handy in politics. Those aren’t traits I’d identify with Rubio, though he’s anything but humorless.
Rubio is a product of a different America. His parents were part of the first wave of immigrants from Castro’s Cuba in 1959. He grew up in Miami and Las Vegas. He sees America not as a “city on a hill,” as Reagan did, but as a haven for freedom-seeking people around the world who view this country as exceptional.
And the issues have been turned upside down from Reagan’s time. Reagan’s overriding mission was to defeat communism. Rubio’s is to restore prosperity—jobs, growth, innovation—at home. As one of 100 senators, assuming he’s elected, Rubio won’t have the ability to do things on a presidential scale. But he knows, having packaged it in a speech, what he’s for and what he’s against. And what America needs.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
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