The freshman senator from Florida had joined four veteran colleagues to unveil a proposal for the first major overhaul of immigration law in a quarter-century. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced “my friend, Senator [Marco] Rubio, who obviously is a new but incredibly important voice in this whole issue of immigration reform.”
Two weeks earlier, Rubio had laid out a similar set of principles in an exclusive interview with The Wall Street Journal under the headline, “Marco Rubio: Riding to the Immigration Rescue.” The article came as a surprise to McCain and other members of the bipartisan group of senators who had been sketching out an immigration plan with and without Rubio for weeks. The blueprint was inspired by legislation that McCain first spearheaded in 2005.
The dig was subtle, but Rubio didn’t let it go. “I am clearly new to this issue in terms of the Senate. I am not new in terms of my life,” noted the Cuban-American senator from West Miami. “I live surrounded by immigrants. My neighbors are immigrants. My family is immigrants. Married into a family of immigrants.”
The understated exchange between the two Republican lawmakers in late January reflects how Rubio has used his compelling biography to cast himself in a starring role in the immigration debate and, beyond that, the future of the GOP.
No matter that he’s only punched up the old script, swung back and forth on immigration policy, and never shepherded major legislation through Congress. What Rubio brings is the star power, adoring fan base, and command of the national media unmatched these days by anyone in Washington outside of the Oval Office. It’s the same aggressive product placement that has made the 41-year-old a top-tier presidential contender just two years after his swearing-in.
Rubio is the GOP’s Barack Obama, minus the intellectual heft intimated by two Ivy League degrees and a law-school faculty post. A Generation X-er with a name that sounds like change. The author of an American Dream-laced memoir that, audiences are frequently reminded, helped pay off his student loans. A former state lawmaker and a Senate short-timer with a thin binder of achievements but perhaps blessed with the greatest rhetorical gifts in politics today. “[Rubio] is the best communicator since Ronald Reagan,” Republican brass Karl Rove gushed recently on Fox News.
Like Obama, Rubio is increasingly viewed by his party as a transcendent figure who can build a winning coalition among a younger and increasingly diverse electorate—and, by the way, deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union in both English and Spanish. The buy-in speaks to Rubio’s uncommon knack for politics and the desperation of a party dependent on a shrinking white vote. “Rubio has exactly what Obama had—a party that has lost two successive presidential elections and is searching for a savior in the face of serious demographic challenges,” says Faith and Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed, a leading Christian conservative. “Whether Marco is the same elixir for the GOP is unknowable today.”
Time magazine rendered a decision last week, declaring Rubio “The Republican Savior” in a cover story that capped off a geyser of overwhelmingly positive media coverage. But as the man seemingly charged with saving the Republican Party from itself, Rubio has offered startling little in terms of outlining bold policy ideas or crafting a modern version of conservatism. His talent, instead, seems to lie in sales, in an ability to pull hoary tropes such as “American Exceptionalism” off the shelf and make them sound new.
Whether it’s the same old package of immigration reforms or the same old party platform, Rubio is the best gift-wrapper in the Republican Party. “We don’t need to raise taxes. We need to create more taxpayers,” he often says. Or, “The way to turn our economy around is not by making rich people poorer; it’s by making poor people richer.” Peel back the wordplay and it’s the timeworn antitax pledge Republicans have been pushing since the mid-1980s. While Obama’s victory has provoked hand-wringing about whether the GOP should abandon less popular positions and move toward the center, it’s possible that all the party needs is a more effective and charismatic vessel for those ideas, a better pitchman.
Like failed presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, Rubio is an anti-gay-marriage, climate-change-denying, fiscal-cliff-jumping military hawk. Yet, so far, he has deflected Democratic attacks that seek to tar him as another Republican extremist with a penchant for sounding totally reasonable and a national marketing campaign that promotes his softer, younger, hipper side. Some of the greatest hits have included a New York Times feature about his lifelong love for the Miami Dolphins; a GQ interview in which he discusses the nuances of East and West Coast rap; a wide-ranging Twitter feed that touches on politics, religion, family, and pop culture (“Cheering 4 & inspired by Lazaro Arbos from Naples, FL who made it to Hollywood on @AmericanIdol last night”); and, most recently, the Time story that leads off with his elderly mother in West Miami. She calls him “Tony.”