Marco Rubio is impressive. He exudes charisma, has a strong grasp of policy, performs well on the debate stage, and is the type of fresh-face the GOP needs from a public relations standpoint. This isn’t to say that I particularly like Rubio. As a libertarian Republican, I’m unimpressed with his ultra-hawkish foreign policy stances, can’t stand his utter disregard of civil liberties, could do without his somewhat crony approach to a few key economic issues, and find his lack of interest in criminal justice reform troubling.
That being said, I believe Rubio is a strong contender for Republican nominee, and predicted earlier this week that he’ll emerge as the victor. I’m personally still on Team Rand, and wrote a recent piece touting his rise in the polls. I think that Rubio, however, could very well stand out as the consensus candidate establishment forces ultimately coalesce around while also being acceptable enough to grassroots conservatives to pull off a win.
Rubio is currently in a unique position; and it’s one that could allow him to peak at just the right moment. He is, according to the same CNN poll that shows Rand Paul back in the top five contenders, tied at 8% with Jeb Bush for third place. This is an impressive feat for Rubio considering the fact that Bush raised $13 million compared to his mere $5.7 million in the last fundraising quarter. It also speaks to why many pundits have speculated that Bush might not have what it takes to make it past the finish line.
“The Demise of Jeb Bush,” written by Dave Catanese at U.S. News and World Report, is one of many articles that has cropped up as of late questioning whether Bush, despite being the overwhelming choice of the Republican establishment, is the right candidate for these tumultuous times. As Catanese explained:
“Less than four months before primary voting begins, Bush has sunk into second-tier status in the GOP nominating bout. He’s stuck in a single-digit polling slump, idling between fourth and fifth place in the 15-candidate field, even after his allies have blitzed the television airwaves with more than $5 million in advertising. His much heralded fundraising prowess has also been neutralized, as he’s raised essentially as much money as Sen. Ted Cruz this last quarter and saved less than the rogue upstart Ben Carson.”
Naturally, this has establishment Republicans concerned. Neither Donald Trump nor Ben Carson would be acceptable nominees as far as the powers-that-be are concerned. And the conservative base is justifiably in the mood for outsiders – though I’d argue that the authoritarian tendencies of both Trump and Carson, “anti-establishment” as they may be, represent a strong step in the wrong direction.
Nevertheless, the field remains dominated by these two, something has to be done, as far as Republican leaders are concerned, to neutralize them, and Bush – the wonkish and unconvincing face of a toxic political dynasty, increasingly looks like he’s enabling the “outsider” dominance rather than quelling it. What’s a party establishment to do? As Catanese wrote:
“Even if the outsiders ultimately fade or self-immolate, there stands Rubio, who is far superior to Bush stylistically and boasts a youthful shine and novelty that accentuates his rationale for a new generation of ideas. Bush’s recent strike on Rubio’s spotty attendance record as a senator seems more likely to resonate with the Beltway press pack than a New Hampshire voter. But since the two are so similar on policy, the menu of attack options at his disposal is limited.”
I agree with Catanese’s take here, but I’d go a step further. It’s not just that Rubio has the potential to move in on what should have been Bush’s territory if Trump and Carson fade. I believe that major donors, many of whom Rubio has recently met with to allegedly positive receptions, will see the writing on the wall for Bush. They will recognize that Rubio is their best bet for obtaining a “serious” candidate, just acceptable enough to establishment forces and grassroots conservatives alike.
The young, articulate son of Cuban immigrants who comes across as vaguely anti-establishment due to his unexpected toppling of Charlie Crist, yet is essentially identical to Bush on policy, is the Republican Party’s best shot at keeping their hands firmly on the reins of power. This is of course, bad news for Bush, but potentially great news for the future viability of the Republican brand. It should be good news for Rubio, too. And it is, in theory. But it isn’t entirely clear that he’s ready, logistically speaking, for what could very well shape up to be his moment in the sun.
While Rubio looks like he’s in the process of scoring some big points with major Republican donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, hedge fund manager Paul Singer, and famous investor Charles Schwab, reports about his campaign’s lack of organization on the ground paint a potentially troubling picture. If Rubio is able to court big money and also pick up wayward supporters of candidates who have dropped out or are fading, he can potentially increase his fundraising enough to get on the ball. But as Kyle Cheney reported at Politico:
“Rubio may be slowly rising in the polls, but his third quarter filing revealed a campaign that’s also out-manned by many of its rivals in the early-voting states. His staff is largely concentrated in Washington, with just a small umbrella of on-the-ground, early-state operatives – and he’s already at a disadvantage because he hasn’t invested the time in early-state visits that some of his opponents have.”
This means that Rubio would have to play catch-up, and with the right amount of resources, there’s still time for that. Rubio, nipping at Bush’s heels both in the polls and within establishment networks, could be the savior the GOP is forced to depend on. While Rubio’s entry into the presidential race has caused a great deal of consternation within Florida politics, Republican leaders both from the men’s home state and nationally might ultimately be happy that Rubio threw his hat in the ring if Bush can’t muster the momentum they’d hoped for.
“If a first-term senator is the answer, what is the question?,” said Jim Dyke, a Bush advisor based in South Carolina. It’s a line, particularly one that negatively invokes Obama, that Bush supporters like to deploy against upstart Senators Paul, Cruz, and Rubio alike. But the difference between Rubio and the other two is that, despite surface appearances, he is vastly friendlier to the whims of the party’s establishment.
This is why I ultimately believe, as Bush continues down the path of being rejected by Republican primary voters, that Rubio is the only candidate positioned to be a true consensus choice. He polls competitively against Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup, is her junior by nearly a quarter century, and is a first generation American with a compelling personal story.
On a general election debate stage, Rubio would articulate a positive “opportunity conservative” vision that contrasts well with Clinton’s sneering essence of dynastic “inevitability” that feels void of meaning. The bases of both the Democratic and Republican parties are thirsting for outsiders – and despite the unforeseen popularity of Bernie Sanders, liberals aren’t likely to get what they’re looking for with Clinton still in the lead.
If Republican strategists actually want to win, they’ll drop their personal ties to the man who represents a dynasty much less popular than the Clintons’ and opt for a fresh face who, despite seeming like an insurgent, is ultimately stealth-establishment. It’s the perfect compromise. Marco Rubio, if everything comes together for him this primary season, can beat Clinton. The question simply comes down to whether he’s ready.