2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Prep: The Question Rubio Can’t Skip

October 28, 2015

For months Marco Rubio succeeded in keeping himself out of any major trouble.  Part skill, larger part strategy, the campaign has remained mostly under the radar, relying on the candidate’s verbal gifts to make enough of an impression in debates and interviews to keep himself in the upper tier without risking overexposure and heightened expectations.

Great job guys.  Well done.  But you can only hide for so long, and when you are the predictive markets front runner (currently with an average estimate of 35% chance of nomination) and immediately in the way of multiple other candidates, arrows will fly.  There isn’t much to hit Rubio with.  He was a rising star in Florida state government and apparently managed to avoid making a ton of enemies.

His only major conservative apostasy was support for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. However, he’s shifted his position and in a decently elegant way, conceding little is possible without border security first.  The establishment wing is more than ok with a pro-immigration, Spanish-speaking nominee, and Paul Ryan is in the process of proving someone with an otherwise conservative record can get around this one issue.

Rubio’s foreign policy stance is a bit interventionist, which doesn’t fit all GOP voters, but isn’t a weakness during primary season.  Even in a general election, Rubio sounds lucid and fluid enough to keep the W flashbacks to a minimum.  Other Republican candidates aren’t going to take points from him there.  He’s done an effective job of making the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sound like an ideal graduate course of study.

He lacks any business or executive experience.  This is usually a problem, and the biggest thing he has in common with Barack Obama, circa 2007-08.  Republicans do prefer candidates with at least one or the other.  It’s an attack used against Ben Carson too, but he can say he ran a department at Johns Hopkins (if you know people who manage doctors, this is more of a balancing act than it sounds), and built a large charitable foundation.  Thin for a presidential contender, but more than Marco.

If we compare Rubio to other candidates with some establishment suitability, Jeb Bush has 8 years as governor of a large state, plus a fairly lengthy business career.  John Kasich is in his second term as governor of a fairly large state and spent most of a decade with a Wall Street investment bank (the departed Lehman).  As we know, Carly Fiorina was a Fortune 50 CEO, allowing her to meet business and executive requirements at once.

Marco works around this pretty well.  His tax plan is the sort of thing business-minded Republicans are ok with, a relatively standard for 2016 GOP mix of lowering corporate tax rates, lowering personal rates along with simplifying brackets and eliminating a few loopholes.  While perhaps lacking the fervor and detail of Ryan, Rubio is well versed in and committed to entitlement reform.  Perhaps most importantly, he sounds good when saying his mom is a Social Security recipient and he’s not going to do anything to jeopardize her.

Combined with references to his tenure as Florida House speaker, which he treats as an executive leadership position, rather than a legislative one, Rubio meets the threshold of acceptability.  With the governors flailing so badly, there are few mainstream conservatives who wouldn’t happily choose him over taking their chances with Door #2.  Many Republicans like the idea of Rubio as the face of the party and will cut him some slack on details.

That leaves Rubio’s shaky Senate attendance record as the best target.  When Donald Trump first brought this up several weeks ago, noting Marco’s record is the worst, even compared to the other presidential candidates, I missed the importance.  It didn’t really take with anyone at the time, being overshadowed by Trump criticizing Rubio’s reliance on water consumption.  The campaign didn’t worry about it either.  After all, according to recent analysis by NBC, Rubio missed 59 votes while Ted Cruz missed 57.  What’s the difference?

A lot more than two votes.  Cruz spends much of his time running against the legislative body he was elected to.  If you found out tomorrow he wanted to install a giant middle finger at the top of the Capitol Dome, you would only ask if his potential evangelical supporters would mind.  Plus, when he does appear on the floor, he’s loud about it.  Whether or not you agree with his methods, you can’t argue Cruz is taking a stand.  He isn’t shy about inserting himself into House debates either.  Mainstream conservatives wish he would spend less time on Capitol Hill, not more.

Rubio is making a different argument.  His implicit pitch is that he can work well with a GOP Congress.  While Cruz relies on his judiciary background to convince supporters he will focus on court appointments and finding ways to use legal precedent to overturn much of what President Obama has done, Marco lacks background in that area.  More importantly, Republicans are looking for a fighter.

In skipping out on the Senate, neither being there, nor being loud, Republicans will wonder if they can count on him.  It’s great that he sounds good, but where’s the backbone?  After failing on immigration, Rubio began to detach and focus on his presidential bid.  There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting to move up to the next rung, but he’s handled this in a way that sounds and feels like establishment excuses about lack of congressional effectiveness.

Give us the Senate so we can make a difference.  Wait, sorry, we need the presidency too.  Rubio ran in 2010 as someone who would make a difference fighting for conservative and Tea Party priorities in DC.  Now it seems like he’s given up, saying votes are unimportant, because he’s taking care of the important job of constituent service.  Charlie Crist could have done that.

As such, the Miami Sun-Sentinel editorial page is now calling for Rubio to resign the seat he apparently doesn’t want.  There is no way this doesn’t come up during the debate.  He’s in a horrible position.  Resigning is probably a good idea.  He wasn’t running for re-election anyway, and a Republican governor would appoint his replacement (unless the GOP-controlled legislature does, but either way…).  Unlike Cruz, he’s not using his position as a bully pulpit, so there’s little benefit to sticking around.  It’s helpful to bail because Rubio could avoid controversial votes.

On the other hand, giving in to a newspaper is a terrible precedent for a youngish, relatively untested GOP candidate.  The opposition attacks write themselves.  Every campaign would have their own way to pounce.  Screwed either way.  Keep in mind, being part of Senate intelligence briefings is an important part of Rubio’s claim to be ready on Day One.  Now he can’t go there.  If he quits and/or can’t quiet this and stick around, mentioning his effectiveness in the Florida House raises the argument he couldn’t remain effective in a bigger pond, calling his next promotion into question.

Despite being omnipresent on the campaign trail Bernie Sanders missed 7 votes, Rand Paul 4, so he can’t make the everybody’s doing it argument.  If septuagenarian Sanders has the energy to be everywhere at once, why not Marco?  If Rubio were camped out in Iowa like Rick Santorum or Bobby Jindal, an honorary Granite Stater like Chris Christie, at least voters would see him grinding away somewhere.  But they’ve avoided this to ensure Rubio wouldn’t be expected to win one of the opening states.

Once upon a time, Republicans selected young strivers Thomas Dewey and Richard Nixon for national tickets.  Dewey got the 1944 nod when he was younger than 44-year-old Marco.  Nixon was a mere 39 when Ike tabbed him as his VP, 47 the first time he ran for the big job.  Nobody questioned their work ethic.  Charisma yes, effort no.  In his mid-thirties, Dewey took down Lucky Luciano and the New York mob.  Nixon went after Alger Hiss and domestic Communists at the same age.  Both proved they could take the heat.

So far, Rubio and advisors have kept the candidate out of trouble, anticipating and avoiding pitfalls.  This one snuck up on them and there’s nowhere to hide.  Over the weekend, Rubio sounded like a spoiled child, strangely off pitch for the first time in the campaign.  I have no idea what he can or should say tonight, but they better come up with something.  This is where Team Rubio shows why they belong in the White House while I write from a local Starbucks.

One thought on “Debate Prep: The Question Rubio Can’t Skip

  1. Wow. You’re refraining from offering an opinion? I’m… speechless.

    Yes, he missed votes, but he wasn’t caught lying to the public about national security in order to win an election. THAT would surely disqualify a candidate, right? And, the media! They would be relentless about such a thing, surely.

    And, at least he is attending security briefings and learning about foreign policy issues. I mean, if he skipped those, or worse, took the information from them and exposed it to spies and hackers on an unsecured email server, THAT would surely be a problem, right? I mean, to expose government secrets to anyone and everyone would be a serious problem that would, in the words of another famous Cuban, require some serious ‘splaining. I’m sure the media would eviscerate any candidate for something egregious like that.

    To be honest, I’m not sure why anyone attends any votes right now. What are they voting on? I was under the impression that not a single bill had passed in months, largely because Obama being a man of principle refuses to consort with “the enemy” and Republicans control both houses. What are they voting on, the lunch menu?


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