The Ryanization of Rubio

A thin legislative record won’t stop Marco Rubio from casting himself as the “ideas candidate” of 2016.

This image can only be used with the Tim Alberta piece that originally ran in the 1/31/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks to aides before speaking on U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement about revising policies on U.S.-Cuba relations on December 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Rubio called the President a bad negotiator and criticized what he claimed was a deal with no democratic advances for Cuba.
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Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Jan. 30, 2015, midnight

It was a form­al­ity, a fa­vor gran­ted to mu­tu­al friends, when Paul Ry­an agreed to meet an un­der­dog Sen­ate can­did­ate from Flor­ida. Ry­an had heard about Marco Ru­bio’s rhet­or­ic­al gifts and at­tract­ive boot­straps bio­graphy, but really, this was meant to be just a meet-and-greet. Be­cause of the po­lar­iz­ing nature of Ry­an’s safety-net-slash­ing pro­pos­als, the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s ideas man was re­luct­ant to en­dorse any­one — much less a can­did­ate trail­ing in the primary polls against a pop­u­lar former gov­ernor.

When that Janu­ary 2010 meet­ing ended, and Ru­bio had been shown out, Ry­an made a beeline for his comms staff. Pre­pare a press re­lease, Ry­an in­struc­ted them. He was ready to en­dorse. The con­gress­man’s staffers were stunned, as Wash­ing­ton’s GOP es­tab­lish­ment soon would be.

Be­hind closed doors, the two men — sep­ar­ated by a year in age, both foot­ball fan­at­ics and de­vout Cath­ol­ics with young chil­dren at home — had bon­ded per­son­ally. More im­port­ant though, when Ru­bio pitched Ry­an, he hadn’t tried to sell his com­pel­ling fam­ily story or his ex­cep­tion­al oratory or his abil­ity to at­tract Lati­nos to the GOP. Rather, the young Flor­idi­an wanted to drill down on a top­ic that had be­come a fo­cal point of his cam­paign: So­cial Se­cur­ity re­form. Ry­an was blown away, not just be­cause it was an is­sue dear to him but also be­cause Ru­bio was run­ning in the state with Amer­ica’s highest con­cen­tra­tion of eld­erly people.

Ru­bio, Ry­an pre­dicted in his en­dorse­ment, would soon “lead a new gen­er­a­tion of Re­pub­lic­ans of­fer­ing bold, in­nov­at­ive solu­tions to the chal­lenges our na­tion faces in the years ahead.” The hope among Ry­an and his wonk­ish al­lies was that Wash­ing­ton would soon wel­come its next great con­ser­vat­ive re­former.

But five years later, the po­ten­tial Ry­an saw in Ru­bio re­mains un­real­ized. Ru­bio’s brand is defined by raw polit­ic­al tal­ent, not tan­gible policy achieve­ments. Some of this owes to the years-long suf­foc­a­tion of GOP ideas in Harry Re­id’s Sen­ate. Still, since Ru­bio’s ar­rival in Wash­ing­ton, only one trans­form­at­ive piece of le­gis­la­tion has been at­tached to his name. And that lone pro­pos­al, a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion pack­age that would have giv­en mil­lions of il­leg­al im­mig­rants a route to cit­izen­ship, back­fired by dam­aging Ru­bio’s cred­ib­il­ity among the very con­ser­vat­ives who fueled his up­set vic­tory in 2010.

If Ru­bio has failed to dis­tin­guish him­self as an ideas man in the Sen­ate, he’s hop­ing to suc­ceed on a much big­ger stage. Ru­bio is act­ively pre­par­ing to run for the pres­id­ency in 2016, and the im­age his cam­paign hopes to pro­ject is that of an in­nov­at­ive policy re­former. It will stress that he hasn’t been in of­fice for four years but for 14, the ma­jor­ity of them in lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions at the loc­al and state levels. This, his team thinks, will help re­fute the in­ev­it­able com­par­is­ons to Barack Obama: young, fresh-faced, first-term sen­at­or with rich rhet­or­ic­al gifts but no deep policy know­ledge.

The strategy also re­flects Team Ru­bio’s view of the 2016 GOP field. Pre­dict­able roles are already be­ing filled: Jeb Bush, the trus­ted es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure; Ted Cruz, the tea-party agit­at­or; Ben Car­son, the in­sur­gent out­sider. Ru­bio has played to all of these audi­ences at vari­ous points and could choose to com­pete for them in 2016. But there is a more at­tract­ive op­tion. Team Ru­bio sees a va­cu­um in the Re­pub­lic­an Party, one to be filled by a con­ser­vat­ive in­tel­lec­tu­al armed with dar­ing policy pro­pos­als who can turn the con­test in­to what the late con­ser­vat­ive icon Jack Kemp called a “battle of ideas.”

This would have been Ry­an’s space to oc­cupy. Lead­ers of the “re­form con­ser­vat­ive” move­ment — a nas­cent net­work of aca­dem­ics, writers, and policy in­tel­lec­tu­als who want to rebrand the Re­pub­lic­an Party as pro­act­ive and solu­tion-ori­ented — failed to prod Ry­an in­to a pres­id­en­tial run in 2012 and held out hope he would try in 2016. In­stead, Ry­an an­nounced he would stay in Con­gress, a de­cision that Ru­bio and his al­lies were bank­ing on. Now, the sen­at­or from Flor­ida is po­s­i­tion­ing him­self to be the re­formers’ cham­pi­on. And to pull it off, he’s de­lib­er­ately down­play­ing his greatest per­ceived strength.

Team Ru­bio sees a va­cu­um in the GOP, one to be filled by a con­ser­vat­ive in­tel­lec­tu­al armed with dar­ing policy pro­pos­als.

“This cam­paign, I hope, will be a com­pet­i­tion of ideas,” Ru­bio says. “What is polit­ics sup­posed to be about? Policy, and the im­ple­ment­a­tion of policy. I mean, we’re not just here to give speeches. What makes a speech mean­ing­ful is what you’re com­mu­nic­at­ing. So you’re really not a very gif­ted orator if what you’re com­mu­nic­at­ing isn’t mean­ing­ful.”

Ru­bio has pre­pared for this mo­ment since 2010, quietly as­sem­bling an ad­vis­ory board of bold-faced names to help him lay the in­tel­lec­tu­al found­a­tion for an “ideas” cam­paign. He has hos­ted think-tank lead­ers for private break­fasts to dis­cuss do­mest­ic eco­nom­ics, called Con­doleezza Rice to dis­cuss for­eign policy; traveled the globe to meet world lead­ers; and summoned renowned schol­ars for quizz­ing ses­sions in his Cap­it­ol Hill con­fer­ence room.

Evid­ence of this years-long policy crash course is on dis­play in Ru­bio’s new book, Amer­ic­an Dreams. Un­like his last polit­ic­al mani­festo, which was dom­in­ated by fam­ily bio­graphy, Ru­bio uses this book to demon­strate schol­arly heft. In it, he of­fers policies on things big (im­mig­ra­tion, health care) and small (col­lege ac­cred­it­a­tion, vo­ca­tion­al train­ing) in an at­tempt to po­s­i­tion him­self as the in­tel­lec­tu­al heir to Ry­an. In­deed, Ru­bio cites Ry­an nearly a dozen times as he ar­gues that bold re­forms are needed for Amer­ica to be com­pet­it­ive in the 21st cen­tury, a mes­sage craf­ted to trans­late to the cam­paign trail.

“Paul Ry­an in some re­spects is a policy in­tel­lec­tu­al who’s de­cided to be a politi­cian. And Marco Ru­bio in some re­spects is a politi­cian who’s de­cided to be a policy thinker,” says Yuval Lev­in, ed­it­or of Na­tion­al Af­fairs, who is widely viewed as the cap­tain of the re­form con­ser­vat­ives.

That may sound like a cri­ti­cism com­ing from someone with Lev­in’s in­flu­ence, but it’s the op­pos­ite. Lev­in is one of sev­er­al con­ser­vat­ive thinkers who meet reg­u­larly with Ry­an and Ru­bio and have forged re­la­tion­ships with both. These mu­tu­al al­lies ex­plain that Ry­an and Ru­bio are like-minded le­gis­lat­ors who ap­proach prob­lems from a sim­il­ar ideo­lo­gic­al per­spect­ive. The dif­fer­ence, they say, is that Ru­bio pos­sesses the polit­ic­al skill to ac­com­plish what Ry­an has not: tak­ing con­ser­vat­ive re­forms out­side the halls of Con­gress and selling them to a na­tion­al elect­or­ate.

And no doubt, Ru­bio can sell.

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Ar­thur Brooks, pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and a god­fath­er to the re­form con­ser­vat­ive move­ment, re­calls two “great” speeches Ru­bio gave in the last year: one on poverty, the oth­er on for­eign policy. But he says it was what happened after the speeches that demon­strated Ru­bio’s mettle. “He did these Q&A’s that were un­scrip­ted, and he had to im­pro­vise. And they were good — he really came off as re­mark­able,” Brooks says. “He showed a lot more ex­pert­ise than people ex­pec­ted.”

These stor­ies abound from the out­side ex­perts who form the sen­at­or’s un­of­fi­cial circle of ad­visers — Lev­in, Brooks, Bob Kagan of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, and former Sen. Jim Tal­ent, among many oth­ers. They de­scribe him as someone who is su­premely con­fid­ent in his own policy for­mu­la­tions. In fact, they say he is less in­ter­ested in their pro­pos­als and more in­ter­ested in their cri­tiques of his own.

This is noth­ing new, es­pe­cially in the for­eign-policy arena, where Ru­bio has demon­strated ex­pert­ise. El­li­ott Ab­rams, a seni­or fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions who ad­vised Pres­id­ents Re­agan and George W. Bush on for­eign policy, was lined up to brief Ru­bio as he was run­ning for the Sen­ate. Ab­rams figured he would be giv­ing the can­did­ate a clin­ic on in­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions. “I re­mem­ber that phone call very well,” Ab­rams says. “I asked him wheth­er he wanted to go coun­try by coun­try, or what. And Ru­bio said, ‘Well, let me just give you my run­down, and you can tell me if I’m right or wrong.’ ” By the time Ru­bio fin­ished, Ab­rams was a be­liev­er. “He nailed it,” Ab­rams re­calls. “All of it.”

It’s this im­age of an in­de­pend­ent, in­tel­lec­tu­al power­house that Ru­bio’s team is des­per­ate to craft. There’s some his­tory to back it up. It was his policy ped­i­gree, al­lies ar­gue, not only his speak­ing style that fueled a rap­id rise in the Flor­ida House. And his first book, 100 In­nov­at­ive Ideas for Flor­ida’s Fu­ture, came out in 2006, four years be­fore he came to Wash­ing­ton. “He’s al­ways been very in­ter­ested in policy,” says Cesar Conda, Ru­bio’s former chief of staff and top polit­ic­al ad­viser. “Dur­ing the 2010 cam­paign, he re­leased an­oth­er 80 ideas. It’s a long-stand­ing pat­tern for him — when he was House speak­er, to be­ing a can­did­ate, to be­ing a sen­at­or. It’s all about the ideas with Marco.”

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It’s true that Ru­bio is an idea fact­ory; he pub­lished a memo in 2014 that lis­ted 39 pain­fully de­tailed pro­pos­als to over­haul prac­tic­ally every ma­jor gov­ern­ment pro­gram, everything from “con­sol­id­ate high­er-edu­ca­tion tax in­cent­ives” to “elim­in­ate So­cial Se­cur­ity payroll tax for seni­ors.” But it’s also true that Ru­bio has a thin re­cord of ac­com­plish­ment since ar­riv­ing on the na­tion­al stage. While his team wants to cast him as this cycle’s Paul Ry­an, Ru­bio lacks the le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ments his friend flaunted in 2012 as proof of his policy chops.

Ru­bio doesn’t seem to care. The story of his as­cent — as­sum­ing the Flor­ida Le­gis­lature’s most power­ful po­s­i­tion at age 35; wa­ging and win­ning an un­likely Sen­ate cam­paign; diving head­first in­to im­mig­ra­tion, the thorn­i­est is­sue in GOP polit­ics — speaks to a politi­cian who does not lack for self-con­fid­ence. Marco Ru­bio is sure he’s the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s next great re­former. Now he just has to con­vince the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

And to do that, the con­tender who wants to be the ideas man will have to rely on those speech-mak­ing skills he’s eager to down­play.

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