Perspective: Rubio seeks the sweet spot

Sen. Marco Rubio is an ambitious man of many political positions. Where some see opportunism, others see pragmatism. As the son of Cuban immigrants, his heart clearly falls on the compassionate side of the conservative debate on a range of issues, and his halting move toward the center may be more than the manifestation of presidential ambition.
Sen. Marco Rubio is an ambitious man of many political positions. Where some see opportunism, others see pragmatism. As the son of Cuban immigrants, his heart clearly falls on the compassionate side of the conservative debate on a range of issues, and his halting move toward the center may be more than the manifestation of presidential ambition.
Published Aug. 1, 2014


In the 2010 campaign that shot him to national prominence, Marco Rubio deftly straddled tea party anger and his deep roots in the Republican establishment. Now, considering a run for president, the Florida senator is attempting a far bigger and riskier balancing act.

As Rubio wades into an array of issues, he's increasingly playing both sides. But the mixed signals raise a question of who Marco Rubio really wants to be and what he truly believes in: Is he the ideological warrior who stood with Sen. Ted Cruz last year and helped force the government shutdown? Or the happy conservative developing ways for government to help the poor and middle class? Does he have a core — and, if so, what is it?

"I didn't run for office to attack people or argue with people unnecessarily," Rubio said in an interview. "In order to move America forward, we do have to come together on a number of these issues."

He asserts he's neither a war hawk nor a peace dove, calling for forceful actions but not necessarily use of force. He's championed comprehensive immigration reform and argued against it. He opposes raising the minimum wage but talks about income mobility through better job training.

He advocates education reform but jumped on the anti-Common Core bandwagon. He doesn't believe in gay marriage but nods toward public acceptance. He doubts human contribution to climate change but says it's changing and wants some mitigation. He voted against the Violence Against Women Act, citing spending considerations, but on Wednesday stood with Democrats to introduce a bill to address sexual assaults on college campuses.

At worst, the Rubio approach seems calculating and contradictory, and headlines are adding up: "Rubio waffles on gay marriage," "Who is Marco Rubio?" "Marco Rubio's climate change doublespeak." "The two faces of Marco Rubio."

Waffles, doublespeak, two faces — those were the slurs hurled at his 2010 opponent, the elastic Charlie Crist.

At best Rubio is doing what he says he's always done — seek solutions without compromising key principles. It's a dirty slog but the 43-year-old with a gift for oratory may just find a center-right path for a GOP that needs to adapt to a changing America.

"Rubio is no dummy and he looked at what Mitt Romney did, which is go so far right in rhetoric and policy positions that it became almost impossible to even with a wink and nod suggest that he was actually a reasonable guy," said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

"The problem," Ornstein added, "is you can look like you are thoughtful and balanced or you can look like you stand for nothing and are unprincipled."

Rubio's moves come as possible 2016 rivals are seeking to broaden their own appeal.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has courted young voters and African-Americans with calls to reform drug laws and by criticizing onerous voting restrictions. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney's running mate, has moved beyond his budget slashing days and just introduced antipoverty legislation that does not seek savings.

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The developments may herald a different tone for the 2016 campaign, one that is more inclusive and moves beyond the rigid ideology that prompted the entire slate of 2012 GOP candidates to reject a hypothetical deficit reduction deal that would balance spending cuts and tax increases by 10-to-1.

The change may not be dramatic — don't expect Rubio or others to start embracing tax hikes — but it is becoming more apparent.

In a way, the flurry of Rubio activity is a return to his political beginning. While speaker of the Florida House from 2006-08, he pursued an agenda called 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future. They ranged from expanding school choice to a controversial plan to replace property taxes with a higher sales tax. While it pushed the perception of Rubio as a serious figure and gained notice from Newt Gingrich and other national figures, it was seen in Tallahassee as self-promotion, and many of the boldest ideas were rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Yet Rubio stretched beyond traditional conservatism, helping push for a council that looked at issues facing black men and boys and establishing in Miami a program modeled on the Harlem's Children Zone. So he has a track record as he now talks about addressing minority concerns or the plight of fatherless children. He accommodated Democratic ideas and was inclusive in debate, sometimes ad nauseam.

As he gained momentum in the U.S. Senate campaign in 2010, the opportunistic side popped out as he rode a tea party wave. Rubio became the unwavering budget hawk, ignoring his own compromises as a legislator and spending plans packed with pet projects for legislators. He disavowed support for the state to pursue market-based strategies to climate change such as cap-and-trade. He got a concealed weapons permit. He went from a moderate on immigration (a number of hard-line bills withered under his watch) to the candidate who declared an earned path to citizenship was "code for amnesty."

That most vexing issue shows the sides of Rubio's character today. He knows which way the wind is blowing and isn't above adjusting his sails to catch the breeze. Yet his heart clearly falls on the compassionate side of the debate, his history as the son of Cuban immigrants and life in immigrant-rich Miami anchoring him. The Hispanic background has carried him far and is the underpinning of his appeal as a national candidate.

Romney's loss in 2012 can be distilled to simple math. The GOP had grown overly reliant on white male voters while Democrats continued to cultivate a coalition of young people, women and minorities. Rubio and others know they need to change that dynamic without turning off the base, which helps explain his trying to expand his reach.

Just as Reagan brought back the GOP by pulling in Catholics and converting Southern Democrats, said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington, Republicans today need to diversify. He thinks Rubio's middle-class approach could appeal to the growing number of Hispanic voters.

"I don't think malleable is the right word," Feehery said of Rubio's seeking a place on various sides of an issue. "I think he's trying to be a synthesizer and bring in the best ideas from both sides."

A fresh example of the Rubio dichotomy came last month at Catholic University in Washington.

Near the end of a speech on policies emphasizing family values — itself a study in nuance — Rubio turned to gay marriage. He adamantly said he believes it should be between a man and a woman and bashed "intolerant" critics of traditionalists. But Rubio acknowledged growing public support for same-sex marriage and said states should decide. To that extent, he is willing to put aside his own moral views if a state's voters see otherwise.

"Many committed gay and lesbian couples feel humiliated by the law's failure to recognize their relationship as a marriage," Rubio said. "And supporters of same-sex marriage argue that laws banning same-sex marriage are discrimination. I respect their arguments. And I would concede that they pose a legitimate question for lawmakers and for society."

News coverage was confusing, some reporters playing up the angle that Rubio was courting religious conservatives in places such as Iowa and South Carolina, two early presidential testing grounds, and others taking note of the more inclusive tone.

"He definitely seems to want it both ways and talks a good game in terms of wanting you to have warm thoughts about him," said Fred Sainz of Human Rights Campaign. "But at the end of the day, if he had to choose up sides, he chooses on the wrong side of history."

Public support for gay marriage is growing nationally, especially among young voters, one of the key demographics the GOP needs attract. Rubio last week waded into the marijuana debate, saying he supported the use of noneuphoric strains for medical needs. Another small step to the middle.

A few days after his speech at Catholic, Rubio was again showing how he's been on all sides of the immigration debate, a tortured spectacle that has played out over the past year and a half.

With conservative tension rising over children arriving at the border with Mexico, Rubio joined calls to end an Obama administration program that granted legal status to youth brought here illegally by their parents — a policy Rubio pursued in 2012. It continued the rightward shift that began soon after he joined a bipartisan group of seven other senators to write comprehensive legislation that was assailed by conservatives as amnesty.

Rubio says he's being realistic about what can get done. He still believes the United States needs to deal with the whole issue, including legalizing millions of undocumented residents, only in steps.

But in his gyrations others see a blunt reminder of the powerful forces that helped get him to Washington and a cravenness fueled by presidential ambitions.

"He was scaring Democratic operatives in 2012 when he busted a move on immigration," said Frank Sharry of the pro-reform America's Voice. "He scared them more when he joined the Gang of 8 and took on the right-wing media. Skin in the game is what Latino voters want, not people who say one thing and do another."

But even as Rubio has retreated to a safer "secure the border first" approach and broadcast that view in repeated appearances on Fox News and conservative radio, he has moved forward on a series of policy proposals geared toward the middle class and younger voters, such as student loan reform and an expansion of tax credits. Instead of obliterating federal poverty programs, he wants to shift them to states, which he says can be more innovative.

These changes, emerging under the banner of reform conservatism, are a departure from current Republican thinking, and Rubio has acknowledged that some of the ideas may not save money. "Our debt isn't driven by discretionary spending on poverty programs," Rubio told the New York Times Magazine recently. "We're not going to balance the budget by saving money on safety-net programs."

Republicans such as Rubio and Ryan have concluded the party needs to offer alternatives, not just opposition.

"Many politicians are just used to operating in situations where everybody agrees with them," said Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and a leader of the reform movement. "That means you don't really have think about how you sound to the country at large. Rubio is well served by the fact that he comes from a place where not everybody is a conservative. That means you have to explain conservatism and argue for it and show why it matters."

But as he tries to live up to that, Rubio often looks like he's trapped between the tea party forces that got him to this position in 2010, even as he was never really the genuine article, and the ones he's trying to marshal for 2016. His current moves to the middle are often subtle, overshadowed by swings to the right, and come across as calculated.

The genial father of four is an authentic believer in Republican philosophy, preached to him as a boy in Miami by his cigar-puffing Cuban grandfather. Yet at his core is an unmatched political drive and uncanny sense of timing. Rubio knows what he wants and how to get it.

"Are his positions real or is it political wind vanes?" said Henry Kelley, a tea party activist in North Florida and fan of Rubio. "That's the risk he has. You start taking too many sides and you become untrustworthy. That tea party wave isn't going to be there in 2016, which may be beneficial for him. He may be seeing he can play to the middle. If you're going to try to be president that's where you kind of got to be."

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.