Is Marco Rubio Becoming the Anti-Rand?

Republicans have a chance to recast their foreign policy brand in 2016. Isolationists have their leading man. Who will go up against him?

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) addresses the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) March 14, 2013 in National Harbor, Maryland.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
March 6, 2014, 7:44 a.m.

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.

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