There is an inherent danger in entering the Senate as a well-known commodity. Winning election as an already established brand, and then acting like it, is a good way to earn the ire of senior colleagues in an august chamber more used to junior members spending years learning the ropes. History is littered with eager young senators who shoot too high too soon, and who spend years repairing their reputations.
So one could forgive Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for treading lightly during his first few months in office. Of his fellow freshmen, no one built higher expectations during the 2010 campaign. Rubio appeared on magazine covers nationwide; he was invited to tour South Carolina with GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, the conservative kingmaker; and he stood as a shining beacon of hope to conservatives upset with both the Democratic Congress and with the Republican majorities that preceded it.
Reaching such a pinnacle too soon is dangerous in politics. Rubio faced the prospect of becoming Icarus, riding the conservative updraft toward the sun; he was mentioned, however implausibly, as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. Alternatively, he could have tempered his ambitions and worked slowly toward a future in the Senate, grounded in a more traditional foundation built by cultivating relationships.
In short, Rubio could follow a path established by two other rookie senators who started careers with huge name recognition and the potential to irritate their colleagues—Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Both entered the Senate as celebrities to their own party’s base, but both kept their heads down, picked a few key issues and worked at the business of legislating. Clinton spent an entire term involved in unglamorous committee work, winning praise from senior members who celebrated her seriousness.
Obama spent less time before leaping to the national stage, but he reached across the aisle—albeit with limited success—on issues like government ethics and lobbying reform.
Rubio insiders prefer analogies to Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and John Thune, R-S.D., but after Brown angered some tea party activists and Thune said no to a national bid, Rubio’s course looks much more like that of the two Democrats.
Of the 16 new senators in the 112th Congress, Rubio is the only one who has not uttered a word on the Senate floor. Some, like Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., barely waited; Kirk gave his maiden speech just two weeks after being sworn in. Others, like Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., waited months; Johnson spoke for the first time in early April. Rubio alone has waited.
He is expected to give his first speech, sources familiar with his plans say, during the coming debate on raising the debt ceiling. To wait so long has been a conscious choice, according to past and present members of Rubio’s inner circle. He hopes to use the address in the manner in which maiden speeches were once used, to set the tone for the rest of his time in office. And waiting for the debt ceiling debate, his team believes, is a way to carve out a niche, and a way to help him build toward whatever future he chooses.
“It’s the most important issue he campaigned on. It’s what he believes should be our main priority, at least right now. Unfortunately, the Senate has spent more than three months debating other issues,” said Alex Burgos, a Rubio spokesman, explaining why Rubio chose the debt debate to make his debut.
Rubio's future could come knocking in short order. Republicans face deep trouble with Hispanic voters across the nation; even in 2010, a great year for Republicans, the GOP won only 38 percent of Hispanic voters. With President Obama on the ballot again in 2012, that number could dip further. Republicans need to do something dramatic to convince Hispanics, a growing portion of the electorate, not to align themselves with Democrats.
And tapping a Hispanic Republican for vice president would be the most obvious possible nod to the growing Hispanic vote. After the 2010 elections, the GOP has a new bench from which to draw, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and a bevy of new Hispanic House members. But none are better-known in conservative circles, and none have come to represent the triumph of ideological purity over moderation and consensus-building, than Rubio.
Though it is too early for any of the new Republican stars to run for president themselves, it is virtually certain, many Republicans say, that one or more of those new office-holders will wind up on the eventual nominee’s vice presidential short list (Asked recently who's on his short list, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty picked Rubio, Sandoval, and Martinez, along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.) Rubio, by dint of his already strong relations with conservative activists and his national profile, seems the most likely to be a serious finalist.
Rubio has his drawbacks. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Florida Democratic Party both have thick dossiers compiled during the 2010 campaign, replete with examples of messy personal finances and lobbying deals cut while Rubio was state House speaker, according to those who have seen the books. Most of those details were aired during the 2010 campaign, but a much wider audience would get a look if Rubio ever makes the leap to a national stage. And Democrats in the Sunshine State love pointing out the attention Rubio gets on a national level.
“With his busy schedule speaking at tea party rallies and appearing on Fox News, it is nice to see that Marco Rubio could finally take a few minutes to be Florida’s junior senator,” jabbed Eric Jotkoff, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. “While Rubio’s National Review cover boy status might impress Republicans at cocktail parties across Washington, D.C., Floridians are seeing that Rubio is just another typical politician trying to impose his extreme Republican agenda on our state.”
But Rubio prevailed in 2010 nonetheless. And thanks to a conscious effort to temper his rise and keep it under control, Rubio’s coming-out speech in May will give him a chance to define his career in the Senate—or to take a next step beyond his current digs.