New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Frank Bruni
January 3, 2016
MATH was never my strongest subject, so maybe I’m just not crunching the numbers right.
But the more I stare at them, the less sense Marco Rubio makes.
Rubio as the front-runner, I mean. As the probable Republican nominee.
According to odds makers and prediction markets, he’s the best bet. According to many commentators, too.
But Iowa’s less than a month away, and in two recent polls of Republican voters there, he’s a distant third, far behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
So he’s killing it in New Hampshire, right?
Wrong. A survey from two weeks ago had him second to Trump there, but another, just days earlier, put him in third place — after Trump and Cruz, again. Chris Christie’s inching up on him, the reasons for which were abundantly clear in a comparison of Christie’s freewheeling campaign style and Rubio’s hyper-controlled one by The Times’s Michael Barbaro.
And as of Thursday, the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls in South Carolina showed Rubio to be more than six points behind Cruz and 21 behind Trump among that state’s Republicans. There’s no inkling of a surge, and it’s not as if pro-Rubio forces have been holding off on advertising that will turn the tide. Plenty of ads have already run.
In fact the rap on Rubio is that he counts too much on them and spends too little time on the trail. The largest newspaper in New Hampshire took aim at the infrequency of his appearances there in an editorial with the headline: “Marco? Marco? Where’s Rubio?”
And when he missed a Senate vote last month, a spokesman for Cruz tweeted that it was because “he had 1 event in a row in Iowa — a record-setting breakneck pace for Marco.”
Rubio can’t claim a singularly formidable campaign organization, with a remarkably robust platoon of ground troops. His fund-raising hasn’t been exceptional.
His promise seems to lie instead in his biography as the son of hard-working Cuban immigrants, in his good looks, in the polish of his oratory, in the nimbleness with which he debates.
And in this: Reasonable people can’t stomach the thought of Trump or Cruz as the nominee. We can’t accept what that would say about America, or what that could mean for it. Rubio is the flawed, rickety lifeboat we cling to, the amulet we clutch. He’ll prevail because he must. The alternative is simply too perverse (Trump) or too cruel (Cruz).
But so much about him and the contention that he’s poised for victory is puzzling.
Because this is his first national campaign, reporters (and opponents) are digging into his past more vigorously than ever, and it’s unclear how much fodder it holds and how much defense he’ll have to play.
Just last week, The Washington Post reported that in 2002, when he was the majority whip in the Florida House of Representatives, he used statehouse stationery to write a letter in support of a real estate license for his sister’s husband, who had served 12 years in federal prison for distributing $15 million worth of cocaine.
Rubio, 44, is only now coming into focus.
He’s frequently been called the Republican Obama — because he’s young, a trailblazing minority and a serious presidential contender while still a first-term senator.
But a prominent G.O.P. strategist told me that Rubio reminds him more of another Democratic president.
“He’s the Republican Bill Clinton,” the strategist said, referring to the slickness with which Rubio shifts shapes and the confidence with which he straddles ideological divides.
He’s a conservative crusader, happy to carry the banner of the Tea Party. He’s a coolheaded pragmatist, ready to do the bidding of Wall Street donors.
“Rubio is triangulating,” Eleanor Clift wrote recently, choosing a Clintonian verb to describe his fuzzy, evolving positions.
He pushed for a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, until he suddenly stepped away from it. He has said that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest, but he has also said that he’d back less extreme regulations if they were the only attainable ones.
“Rubio’s inclusiveness can invite caricature,” Evan Osnos observed in The New Yorker in late November. “He considers himself a Catholic, but he attends two churches — an evangelical Protestant service on Saturdays and a Roman Catholic Mass on Sundays.”
He’s a pile of paradoxes. He’s a teetering stack of them.
By dint of his heritage, he’s supposed to represent a much-needed Republican bridge to Latinos. But many of his positions impede that, and several recent polls raise doubts about the strength of his appeal to Latino voters.
THERE’S no theme in his campaign more incessantly trumpeted than a generational one. Declaiming that Hillary Clinton, 68, is yesterday, he presents himself as tomorrow, an ambassador for young voters who’ll presumably bring more of them, too, to the Republican camp.
But in a Washington Post/ABC News poll in late November, his support was more than twice as strong among Republican voters 65 and older as among those under 50.
And he’s at sharp odds with millennials on a range of issues. Most of them favor same-sex marriage; he doesn’t. Most are wary of government surveillance; he’s one of its fiercest proponents. Unlike him, they want marijuana legalized. Unlike him, they want decisive government action against climate change.
And they’re not swayed by unwrinkled skin and a relatively full head of dark hair. Just ask wizened, white-tufted Bernie Sanders, 74, whose campaign is the one most clearly buoyed by young voters.
So what does Rubio offer them?
He communicates a message — a gleam — of hope. He’s a smoother salesman and more talented politician than most of his Republican rivals. That’s why I still buy the argument that he’s the one to watch, especially given his party’s long history of selecting less provocative candidates over firebrands.
I still nod at the notion that if he merely finishes ahead of Christie, Jeb Bush and other candidates who are vying for mainstream Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, they’ll fade, their supporters will flock to him and he’ll be lifted above Cruz and even above Trump, who could implode at any moment anyway.
But over the last three decades, no Republican or Democrat — with the exception of Bill Clinton — lost both Iowa and New Hampshire and survived that crisis in momentum to win the nomination. If that’s Rubio’s path, it’s an unusual one.
In an unusual year, yes. But as the wait for his candidacy to heat up lengthens, I wonder: Could he burn out before he ever catches fire?
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