Marco Rubio had heard enough from his Senate colleague, and when the time came, the senator from Florida delivered a harsh reprimand. "If this nation is not firmly on the side of human rights and freedom and the dignity of all people, what nation on the Earth will? And if we're prepared to walk away from that, then I submit to you that this century is going to be a dangerous and dark one."
In that moment, Rubio was on the Senate floor, rebuking Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa for his acclaim of Cuba. But it's not difficult to imagine Rubio, sometime in the not-so-distant future, aiming such an admonition at another senator: Rand Paul.
As the 2016 Republican presidential race simmers beneath the surface, contenders are beginning to carve out policy identities that can be sold to voters and campaign donors. Nowhere will this positioning be more unpredictable than on the subject of foreign policy. After eight years out of power—following seven years of Republican adventurism abroad—the GOP in 2016 will have something of a blank slate on which to craft a modern approach to international relations. Paul, whose isolationist streak appeals to a war-weary slice of the GOP electorate, stands in one corner of the party's foreign policy fight heading into the presidential election. The other corner, one that appeals to traditional defense hawks and interventionists, is presently unoccupied.
Enter Rubio. The Floridian claims to reject the "obsolete" labels of hawk and dove, interventionist and noninterventionist. But the common theme of Rubio's months-long, transcontinental foreign policy proselytization tour is articulating a strong America that is active and engaged in every part of the world. His takedown of Harkin was just the latest example, and the response—the speech registered a quarter-million YouTube hits within 72 hours and was raved about in GOP circles—showed the hunger in the party for someone to rebut the nascent libertarian wing. Whether intended or not, Rubio's speech may have signaled the beginning of the anti-Rand auditions for 2016.
"This wasn't some hazy, ephemeral speech about American do-gooding," said Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP strategist close to Rubio's camp. "This was about the consistent themes of American moral leadership and our responsibility to point out and call out the actions of those in the world that show an oppressive streak and the necessity to stamp it out."
Indeed, these "themes" were not exclusive to Rubio's floor speech. The senator has been an international actor of late, beginning with a major foreign policy address at the American Enterprise Institute in November. The following month, he gave a high-profile talk in London on the enduring importance of the Transatlantic alliance. In January, Rubio visited Asia, meeting with government leaders in Japan and South Korea and touring the demilitarized zone. He began February by calling for the U.S. to "overtly provide lethal support" to rebels in Syria, raising eyebrows in Republican circles. And he ended the month with that fiery floor speech, denouncing the violence in Venezuela and criticizing U.S. policymakers for not actively opposing communism in our hemisphere.
"When you look at 2016 in terms of prospective candidates, Marco Rubio definitely seems to be doing the most to develop a foreign policy profile," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden, a veteran of Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns. "And it's happening at a time when many Republicans are looking for a strong counterpoint to the administration—and also a new voice. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are well established. They want to hear from someone new."
Just when Rubio appeared ready for a rest, Russian troops entered Ukraine. As President Obama sought to defuse the situation and other Republicans issued guarded statements, Rubio went on the offensive. He wrote an op-ed for Politico suggesting ways to "punish Russia." On Meet the Press, Rubio called Russia "an enemy of the United States" and labeled Vladimir Putin's regime "a government of liars."
That's awfully hawkish for someone who doesn't like labels.
Paul was considerably less animated in responding to Russian aggression. He issued a placid statement suggesting that Russian leaders "should think long and hard" about their actions. At least Paul, a considerably more adroit politician than his father, had the presence of mind to begin his statement with an obligatory line: "We live in an interconnected world, and the United States has a vital role in the stability of that world." Such nuance may be unfamiliar to the family brand—Ron Paul famously said he wouldn't have ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, out of "respect for the rule of law"—but it's absolutely necessary if Paul is to expand his appeal beyond the grassroots army that buoyed his father's campaigns.
"The group that would support Paul and his isolationism is more limited than the group that would support someone who wants a more robust role for America in the world as a peacemaker," said Fred Malek, a longtime GOP consultant who chaired McCain's finance operation during his 2008 presidential campaign.
One thing is certain: Rubio won't win those Republicans without a fight. Several other potential candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, are expected to compete for the same hawkish votes.
But unlike his prospective competition, Rubio, by nature of working in Washington and serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, can uniquely position himself on the national stage as Paul's ideological counterweight in the run-up to 2016. Indeed, while there are many disadvantages to being a presidential candidate serving in Congress, Rubio is exploiting one giant upside.
At CPAC, Marco Rubio
This article appears in the March 8, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Casting Call.