Don’t Believe the Hype

February 10, 2013 8:39 a.m.

Let’s just say it: Marco Rubio is the Wes Clark of 2013. Only with many fewer accomplishments.It pains me to say this because I’m an admirer of Gen. Wesley Clark. I think he would have made a good president. He was an extremely accomplished career military officer. He was also a West Point valedictorian and Rhodes Scholar, so you might say a Democrat’s vision of what a warrior-scholar should be.

But there’s a difference between a person’s innate qualities and accomplishments and the reason they become the person of the moment or get seized upon for some special role by a political party. And there’s no question Democrats seized on Clark in 2003/2004 because his credentials as a retired 4 star general and a combat vet promised to serve as a heat shield to protect them from charges of weakness in an era in which an aggressive national security posture was the sine qua non of national elections.

Nor was Clark the only example. Finding the retired General or combat vet to carry the Democratic banner was a thing for a couple decades — and for obvious reasons: the public consistently rated Republicans better on national security issues.

But nominating a general doesn’t solve the political problem. Ask President Kerry. And neither will nominating Marco Rubio or putting him at the party’s helm.

We hear today that not only is he young and ‘on social media’, he also “knows who Tupac is.” And of course this week he will deliver the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address.

Supporters can note that if Rubio ran for president in 2016 his time on the national stage would be precisely the same as Barack Obama’s was in 2008. And they’d be right. But Rubio isn’t a rising political star. The mechanics are different. It’s more like the party’s lack of traction with youth and minority voters is creating a vast zone of negative pressure, sucking him up to the heights of the party structure in Washington.

The Rubio phenomenon is more than anything an advertisement for Republican denial. Saying he’s happening because he can identify a rapper who’s been dead for going on 20 years just brings it to the level of self-parody.

So is Rubio the new face of the GOP? Doubtful. He’s for immigration reform. But the only Republicans currently holding power in Washington say they’re against it. So his big sell immediately puts him at odds with the heart of his party.

This doesn’t mean Rubio will crash and burn or fall short of his party’s high hopes for him. As I noted a few days ago, sometimes a politician can be hoisted to the heights for reasons that have little to do with who they really are but end up having a level of innate political skill that they can grab that opportunity and ride it to the top. So it’s possible. But very doubtful. The Wes Clark boomlet is a much better predictor.

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