You know what the Republican Party could really, really use in 2016? A presidential candidate who doesn’t come across like a time-traveling ambassador from the 1950s. Someone who can rid the GOP of its self-imposed bondage to Reaganomics and the Great White Whale of lower tax rates on the wealthy as the answer to every question. A national spokesman who can reverse the damage Republicans have done to themselves by egregiously offending Latinos. A nominee with a general election strategy more imaginative than endlessly doubling down on the same appeals to the same older, whiter, culturally resentful “base.”
Does it sound like what the Republican Party needs in 2016 is Marco Rubio? In theory, yes. But on examination, the frustrating thing about the third GOP presidential candidate to officially announce is that he falls short of meaningfully embodying any of the potential qualities he is so often thought to represent.
Yes, he has made himself the vehicle for “Reformicon” ideas on boosting lower- and middle-class family income via enhanced tax credits. But he encloses this conservative, inequality-fighting nugget in a big poison pill of new tax benefits for the wealthy, including the complete exclusion of investment income and inheritances from any taxation at all. And the fiscal math of his budget proposals would guarantee cuts in social safety net programs of far greater value than any of the shiny new benefits he proposes.
Yes, he is Latino (and not just by association, like his former mentor and now rival Jeb Bush), and once championed comprehensive immigration reform. But he has so thoroughly repudiated and repented his position on immigration that the only thing left for him to do is to crawl up the steps of the Capitol in sackcloth to kiss the posterior of Rep. Steve King. And he belongs to a Cuban-American demographic that has never shown much empathy for or exerted much influence over more numerous and less conservative Latinos from other backgrounds.
And yes, Rubio is relatively young, looks even younger, and likes to talk of himself as representing a new “twenty-first century” perspective. But he has most recently identified himself with a foreign policy cause that is quite literally a Cold War relic, and one which no one under the age of 60 is likely to appreciate: hard-line anti-Castroism.
None of this is to say that Rubio is without attractive qualities as a presidential candidate. He is a good speaker, though his “son of a bartender and a maid” autobiography may soon grow as tiresome as John Edwards’ “son of a millworker” shtick became. He would, if nominated, have a natural advantage in a key battleground state. And he does have some party-uniting appeal to both Establishment and Tea Party factions, albeit not a great deal of trust. You could also make the case that his shrill neocon-ish national security views will give him a special leg up with conservative elites threatened existentially by Rand Paul’s heresies, if only until Tom Cotton is ready for his own presidential run. The military industrial complex is a valuable constituency for any Republican candidate.
But the sad thing is that in order to make himself a viable Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has had to systematically deny himself most of the impulses that made him a potentially party-changing politician in the first place. What’s left is a Potemkin Village of images and claims that simply are not supported by what the man actually proposes to do as president.
This is by no means a secret. As Brian Beutler of the New Republic notes, Rubio’s act makes him vulnerable to attacks for being a complete phony, which is not what the political doctor ordered for the damaged-goods GOP:
[R]ather than abandon his reformist pretensions, or advance them knowing he will ultimately lose, Rubio has chosen to claim the mantle of reform and surrender to the right simultaneously—to make promises to nontraditional voters he knows he can’t keep.
There’s nothing unusual about picking a vice-presidential nominee in terms of the symbolic signals a candidate sends, without a whole lot of worry about authenticity. After all, Republicans sent Paul Ryan out there in 2012 to pretend he was devoted to protecting his mother’s Medicare benefits from mean old Barack Obama. (Maybe that’s where Rubio will wind up, though he cannot run with Jebbie unless the latest Bush reclaims residency in Texas, and you’d have to figure Scott Walker might need a running mate with a bit more gravitas.) The top of the ticket, however, is and should be reserved for politicians whose projected self-image does not crumble or fade with the slightest exposure to the light.
You can make the argument that other GOP presidential wannabes similarly depend on smoke and mirrors. Most notably, Rand Paul is thoroughly Janus-faced depending on whether he is talking to African-Americans interested in criminal justice reform, young non-partisans hostile to government surveillance programs, or conservative evangelical home-schoolers who want subsidies to offset those provided to “government schools.” And it’s entirely customary for Republican pols to rely on “dog whistle” appeals to the base they’d prefer swing voters never hear.
But Rubio uniquely stands for the side of the GOP that the party’s image-meisters most want swing voters to see—even as he stands on a philosophy and agenda reminiscent of the 1964 Goldwater campaign. And he clearly hopes to play this double game all the way to the White House.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.