The young Republican senator could be the first Hispanic President of the United Statesby Sam Tanenhaus / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
The 2016 United States presidential election, now in its opening phase, reflects the curious swapping of identities that has overtaken America’s two major parties. The Democrats, for many years a quarrelsome overstuffed tent of “special interest groups,” have set aside their differences in a feat of lockstep discipline that threatens to make the coronation of Hillary Clinton, the first lady of American politics whose “turn” has come, an 18-month marathon of brain-numbing, on-message “unity.” It used to be Republicans, devoted to the “next in line” principle, who anointed nominees that way, but it has yielded a string of unloved and out-of-touch also-rans: Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Now they’ve embraced the carnival free-for-all. It says much that of the 19 people jostling noisily at the gate, the real estate mogul and media jester Donald Trump is not the darkest horse in the field—thanks to the presence of two others who have never held elected office: Ben Carson, a retired brain surgeon and inspirational memoirist, and Carly Fiorina, a former CEO best known for mismanaging the tech giant Hewlett-Packard through the tumult of 30,000 layoffs and a plunging stock price.
Then again, this is merely the prelude. The first true nominating contest, the all-important Iowa caucus, won’t be held until 1st February. Two formidable contenders, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, have yet to declare. They may need to soon, however, because a politician more naturally gifted than either, Senator Marco Rubio, has become an early favourite and is being discussed with excitement of the kind once generated by Barack Obama. A 43-year-old Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants who played football in high school and college, Rubio has risen with improbable speed from Florida state legislator to “top tier” contender. He begins his day by reading economic policy papers on his iPad, and has undergone crash tutoring in foreign policy. He recently assured ex-diplomats and national security experts that he will “set forth a doctrine for the exercise of American influence in the world… [and will] adhere to that doctrine with the principled devotion that has marked the bipartisan tadition of presidential leadership from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan.”
Since announcing his candidacy on 13th April—Clinton declared the day before in what some interpret as a wary attempt to upstage him—Rubio has been surging in early polls. He has also charmed voters in Iowa and New Hampshire (site of the first primary) and has dazzled potential donors, including Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire and one-man Israel lobby, who spent close to $100m on Republicans in 2012.
A few months ago, many assumed that Rubio wouldn’t run, at least not yet. He is, or was, a protégé of Jeb Bush—and has deferred to him in the past (pursuing the Senate seat he won in an upset in 2010 only after Bush decided not to seek it himself). To go head-to-head with Bush on the biggest political stage would be awkward—and could make it hard for Rubio to get a viable share of financing, given the reach of the Bush family’s prodigiously refined “bundling” operation, which stretches from Florida and Texas to Wall Street and Greenwich, Connecticut. The family’s dynastic map uniquely combines east coast and sunbelt connections, formed in the early 1950s, when the patriarch (and first family member to become President) George HW Bush, setting himself up in Texas oil, travelled back east to collect seed money from helpful relatives and friends.
Election forecasting in the US very quickly evolves, or reduces, into money chat, as shown by the way influential publications report every wrinkle in the funding sweepstakes and compete for leaks on the candidates’ closed-door meetings with potential donors, handicapping each as if it were a preliminary lap in the longer race or a straw poll in which the votes are counted in dollars. This is one result of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling in 2010, which effectively lifted all restrictions on campaign spending, placing political action committees known as “super PACs” at the centre of politics. In 2016, total campaign expenditures could be as much as $5bn, with Clinton alone raising as much as $2.5bn.
But dollars aren’t votes, and, unlike Clinton, Bush at this early stage doesn’t seem to be winning over those stubborn folk, the “grassroots activists” who will actually choose the next nominee. These Republicans, the party’s base, suspect that he is a “Republican in name only,” or “Rino,” at a time when the species verges on extinction. The charge is unfair. Bush is actually an ideological conservative, more so than his brother George W, the “compassionate conservative”—and perhaps more than Rubio, too. But, as William F Buckley Jr, one of the authors of “movement” conservatism, pointed out many years ago, “Rhetoric is the principal thing. It precedes all action.” And Rubio excels at rhetoric that doesn’t grate as some others’ does, and he understands that to many Americans, Florida is still a Disneyfied paradise for retirees. “We’re starting to lose people to places where the weather and golf courses aren’t as good,” Rubio drily told a reporter from the New York Times who had come to Florida to write a lengthy story on the 2010 Senate race. The nominal protagonist was Charlie Crist, the popular Florida Governor whom Rubio outmanoeuvred in the Republican primary, before coasting to victory in the general election. Crist got most of the coverage in the published article, but the star was Rubio who “is Hispanic, uses Twitter and listens to Snoop Dogg—not your grandmother’s Republican, in other words.”
He is also a professional politician and has been one almost all his adult life. “Rubio has a very different biography than most Republican politicians,” says Yuval Levin, Editor of the policy journal National Affairs. “He grew up in a city. He didn’t have a lot of money. He never owned a small business. He went to a small college and then went to law school and then went into politics. That sounds like a Democratic member of Congress.” This background informs Rubio’s ideas about the conservative welfare state that ideological thinkers since Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, first envisioned 40 years ago. “The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy—as [Otto von] Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago,” Kristol wrote in 1976. “In our urbanised, industrialised, highly mobile society, people need governmental [aid] of some kind if they are to cope with many of their problems: old age, illness, unemployment, etc. They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it?”
Democrats have answers to this question. Three of them are social security, medicare and now the Affordable Care Act. All are interrelated and were meant, not as “handouts” to the poor or as boondoggles for bureaucrats, as conservatives insist, but as support systems. Rubio, who grew up poor, knows the moral costs of poverty. At a time when conservative doctrine remains anchored, or mired, in “trickle-down” supply-side economics, he is one of a handful of Republicans whose call for a new war on poverty, a conservative reset of the policies enacted as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” 50 years ago, doesn’t depict the poor themselves as fundamentally undeserving. “Our debt isn’t driven by discretionary spending on poverty programmes,” Rubio told me a year ago. “We’re not going to balance the budget by saving money on safety-net programmes.” He also knows that much of the so-called middle class is, in real terms, sagging under the burden of debt. This is why he has worked on policies that would make it easier for young people to pay off their college loans (Rubio himself took 16 years to pay off the $100,000 he borrowed).
All this makes Rubio attractive to liberals—not because they agree with his ideas or find them better than Democratic ones. They don’t. The numbers in Rubio’s tax proposals, to give one example, often don’t add up. But Rubio’s passionate belief in what liberals call “economic justice” makes serious discussion possible, and that is the beginning of consensus. “He knows what he sounds like to people who don’t agree with him,” says Levin. And he has on occasion been seduced by his own gifts. A telling moment came after the 2012 presidential election, a debacle for the “Grand Old Party” (GOP). Many Republicans had been convinced that Romney would win, possibly in a landslide. In their minds 2012 was 1932. Obama was Herbert Hoover, presiding over a ruined economy. The country would rise up in protest. All the evidence suggested otherwise. For one thing, most of the public blamed the recession on Bush and viewed Republicans as obstructionists. For another, Obama’s renomination wasn’t challenged—as one-term president’s usually are: Johnson in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the elder Bush in 1992. Obama’s party rallied behind him as the Republican nomination degenerated into anarchic spectacle. The high, or low, point came in the party’s 20 debates, some of them scripted, it seemed, by Eugène Ionesco or Harold Pinter, with absurdist cameos by the fast-food pizza king Herman Cain and the biblical-literalist Michelle Bachmann, with her stunned-ox look of perpetual vacant amazement.
The defeat in November 2012 was brutal and efficient. Republican post-mortems were penitential exercises in arithmetic. Romney had done dismally with Hispanic voters, who in 2012 composed 8.4 per cent of all voters, an increase of a full percentage point from 2008—no small shift in an electorate as evenly divided as the US has become in the 21st century. George W Bush’s victory in 2004 was made possible by his large share of the Hispanic vote, as much as 40 per cent.
Bush won over Hispanic voters because he had a long record of demonstrated sympathy on issues such as immigration and cross-border trade with Mexico dating back to his years as Governor of Texas. In his second term he had tried to push through immigration reform, granting citizenship to “illegals,” just as Ronald Reagan had done in 1987 and his father in 1990. Yet Republicans squandered that good will. Conservatives were denouncing “amnesty” for “illegal aliens.”
After Romney’s defeat, a shiver of remorse ran through the upper reaches of the conservative movement—and fear, given demographic trends which showed a growing Hispanic population that voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats (in 2012, 71 per cent of Hispanics supported Obama). Why pick on Hispanics—a “striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative?” as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote. By rights, some argued, Hispanics or Latinos should form the backbone of the GOP. The problem with immigration wasn’t illegals. It was a “broken system.” Fixing it humanely made sense and was good for everyone. Legalise the undocumented and they would come “out of the shadows.” They would learn English, pay taxes, become like… Marco Rubio.
The question in some minds is whether Rubio can also fix his party’s problems with Hispanic voters. The Hispanic population is large, but not uniform, however. The demographic term “white Hispanic” clumsily tries to balance “national origin” against racial and ethnic lineage. To a Mexican-American, Rubio may seem more “white” than Latino.
“The single most impressive item in Rubio’s brief national career has been his steady and calculated return to favour.”
Two respected legislators, John McCain, who had been aching to pass an immigration bill, and the Democrat Chuck Schumer, recruited Rubio, the poster-boy of both immigrant virtues and Tea Party insurgency, to round out their “Gang of Eight,” four from each party, textbook bipartisanism of a kind that had been pronounced dead in the Obama years. Rubio became “the gang’s official ambassador to the right, spending countless hours discussing the legislation with conservative news outlets,” as the New Yorker’s political reporter Ryan Lizza wrote at the time. “The Democrats in the gang are so grateful to Rubio,” he added, “that their praise of him borders on the obsequious.” The bill coasted through the Senate with little resistance and no filibuster, which has rarely happened while Obama has been in the White House.
And then the bill went to the House of Representatives and languished unto death. The votes were there, but only if the two parties came together. The “Tea Party Caucus,” many from the Deep South, where anti-immigrant sentiments are fierce, kept the bill from coming to a vote. As it crashed, so did Rubio’s standing on the right. He tumbled from grace, overtaken in the Tea Party firmament by two other back-bench senators: Rand Paul, the libertarian who led the attack on the growing “surveillance state” of Obama’s “big brother” government; and Ted Cruz, the architect of the government shutdown in October 2013. All three are now running for President, but it is Rubio who is being taken seriously, thanks to further spins of the wheel. Paul’s anti-war views, and his championing of Edward Snowden, have made him an outlier in a GOP that wants to put Obama’s “weak” foreign policy at the centre of the 2016 election campaign. Cruz is more rabble-rouser than leader, loathed by colleagues who resent his grandstanding.
The single most impressive item in Rubio’s brief national career has been his steady and calculated return to favour. He has since renounced the bill he helped to write, and has joined his party in opposing Obama’s executive action granting citizenship to as many as five million undocumented immigrants. And Rubio now goes forth to meet voters who seem not only forgiving, but hungry for the promise he offers. At the candidates’ April “summit” in New Hampshire, a woman complained about creeping bilingualism—signs in Spanish in local shops, Spanish choices on recorded telephone instructions. “Well, here’s the bottom line,” Rubio replied. “If you don’t speak English, you’re not going to prosper economically in America.” In Iowa, where the crowds are lily and withered-white, elderly Republicans came out for a look. “The day of the older white guy is kind of out,” one said.
There is another aspect to this. In a general election, should Rubio get that far, he can remind centrists and moderates, who mostly support immigration reform, that he was a member of the distinguished Gang of Eight who tried to do something about it. At the same time, he can remind conservatives that he stood with his party in defying Obama. He can point as well to his opposition to Obama’s decision to smooth relations with Cuba. No Americans outdo Cuban immigrants and refugees in their anti-communism, so much a point of pride for Rubio that even after researchers found that his parents left the country in 1956, when it was still ruled by Fulgencio Batista, the biography on his Senate website continued, for a time, to describe them as Castro-era exiles. He maintains that it was an honest mistake; he learned the truth while writing his memoirs, entitled An American Son.
Rubio appears, for the moment at least, to incarnate the fable of the fortune-kissed upstart, who begins with no advantages (neither wealth nor family connections) but rises because of his brains, disciplined energy and unshakable belief in himself. The story of the poor boy who rises high is one Americans love to tell themselves, especially at election time. Some of the grandest ascendancies in our politics are variations of this story, and some of the tawdriest too. The example of Abraham Lincoln, the “rail splitter” hewn into crooked-timber greatness is a classic instance of self-creation, but so is the soul-destroying craft of a Richard Nixon. “Nothing is got for nothing,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, and we are trained, by habit and history as well as by myth, to sense the heavy ghost of Abel Magwitch, the fugutive in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations who becomes Pip’s benfactor, shivering in the marsh, the iron clamped on his leg.
Rubio’s Magwitch is Norman Braman, a billionaire who built his fortune in Philadelphia (department stores and later pharmaeceuticals and cosmestics) and then “retired” to Miami at the age of 36, and promptly made billions more (car dealerships—BMWs, Rolls-Royces, Bugattis). He is a ruling exile in a state that is full of them—the half million Cubans who fled after Fidel Castro came to power, the drifters and gamblers who come for the warmth and the beaches, the golfers and tennis stars who come for sun and the “friendly” tax environment (Florida is one of nine states that have no income tax).
Money questions normally centre on politicians like Romney and the Bushes—wealthy men with connections to other wealthy men of the sort who at times don’t bother to ask for the favours they expect to come their way. Rubio’s relationship with Braman raises a different question: how beholden might the Senator—or President—be to a single sponsor, in this case one who has given Rubio’s wife a job at his charitable foundation and has said he will donate as much as $10m to Rubio’s campaign. Rubio, of course, says he has done Braman no special favours, and that the power he’s used, for instance, to get $80m in Florida money to a genomic centre Braman founded, has been money well spent. But the hint of quid pro quo has trailed Rubio since his days as a boy wonder in the Florida state legislature. He became its leader at 35, among the youngest in state history. The excellent Miami Herald has reported on Rubio’s mounting debt and wobbly finances—including the three houses he owns and the mortgages he carries. Like Obama, he’s made most of his money from his memoir, a bestseller in 2012. Unlike him, he has a history of indiscretion and sloppiness.
Rubio is, above all, a Floridian, and the state has been a supply-side sandcastle for much of its history. “The state’s economy depends almost entirely on growth—that is, on new arrivals and the wealth they generate in construction and real estate,” George Packer observed in the New Yorker after the mortgage bubble had burst. His essay, entitled “The Ponzi State,” was published in February 2009, two months after the financier Bernard Madoff, was placed under house arrest in Manhattan after his $50bn swindle had been exposed. Madoff, we later learned, didn’t even trouble to lure clients. They came panting after him, hungry for the otherworldly “returns” he made on their “investments.” Madoff too had a Florida life. He was a fixture at the Palm Beach Country Club, a plush cave for the super-wealthy. “Investors were said to have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to remain members of this club in hopes of an introduction to Mr Madoff,” the New York Times reported.
What were they looking for? They were already rich. How much richer did they need to be? Rich enough, perhaps, to buy a piece of immortality. That was the dream of the first European explorer to set foot in Florida, the Spaniard Ponce de Leon, who came in search of eternal youth and left behind what remains the continent’s oldest settlement. At 44, Rubio would not be the youngest elected President—John F Kennedy was 43—but he would seem so, since he looks closer to 30. “We’re going to have the first teenage President,” the Miami humorist Dave Barry has said. There is also the chance, or hope, that he will “grow in office,” as Kennedy did. The American republic as it ages seems to crave rejuvenation. This has been an era of presidents whose appeal begins in the image of youth they truthfully project, because they are fatherless. Bill Clinton never knew his biological father; Barack Obama, who as a child knew his father “only through the stories [his] mother and grandfather told.” George W Bush is still trying live up to the example of “41,” who hovers distantly above him. Rubio is not just “an” American son. He is the American son. This may be his strongest claim on the country. His further rise will depend not just on its support, but also on its forbearance and trust.