Is Marco Rubio the GOP’s Bill Clinton?

Clinton triangulated his way to victory against the Republicans in 1992. But can Rubio pull off a similar trick within his party to secure the nomination?

12.10.15 6:00 AM ET

In more ordinary political times, Marco Rubio’s position on abortion, opposing any exceptions, not even for rape and incest, would be a career-ender on a national ticket. But in an election cycle where more rules have been broken than kept, Rubio has found a way to wiggle out of the most extreme interpretation of what he said in the GOP’s first presidential debate, and it goes like this:

My preference is the position of my church. I have supported in the past and would support in the future bills with exceptions. I want to save as many lives as possible.

It sounds a lot like Democrat Bill Clinton circa 1992 struggling to center his party in the mainstream on cultural issues. Abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” Clinton said, a declaration that signaled he was a New Democrat who could reorient his party to win nationally.

Democrats in the early 1990s were much more fractured than they are today. Shut out of the White House for a dozen years, New Democrats like Clinton blamed the party’s left wing for scaring off the working class and turning them into Reagan Democrats. Clinton pointedly challenged the left in the primaries on cultural issues, leaving the campaign trail to preside over an execution in Arkansas, and choosing an event sponsored by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to denounce “Sister Souljah,” a young rap singer whose lyrics seemed to extol inter-racial violence.

Rubio is trying to be broadly acceptable to nearly everybody, and in a party as disrupted as today’s GOP, his challenge is much greater than what Clinton faced. Clinton had to stare down one wing, and once the left saw that he could potentially win the White House, they got on board. After the Democrats lost control of the Congress in 1994, Clinton turned to a Republican pollster, Dick Morris, who coined the phrase “triangulation” to describe how Clinton would be splitting the difference between Republicans and Democrats to find a common governing agenda.

Rubio is triangulating too, not between Republicans and Democrats, but between more establishment conservatives and angry-as-hell hardliners on every social issue. On immigration (he was for it before he was against it), on climate change (he says it’s real but not man-made), and on abortion, his evolving position suggests some flexibility.

Rubio is positioning himself as “the William F. Buckley candidate,” says William Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. As the intellectual father of the modern conservative movement, Buckley said the task for Republicans is to nominate the most conservative candidate with a good chance of getting elected.

That has generally meant taking the rough edges off some conservative positions, something that Rubio does well. “It’s clear Rubio has enormous innate political gifts,” says Galston. “He speaks well; he’s very quick on his feet. Whatever he says he manages to say with a smile and positive tone, so he’s channeling hope rather than fear or anger,” in contrast with Ted Cruz, his closest competitor. “Rubio’s balancing act is to offer conservative with a human face while at the same time conveying strength and resolve to the base that he will be strong and reliable” on issues like immigration and abortion.

Despite the similarities with Clinton, the politician Rubio is most often compared to is Barack Obama, who ran for president midway through his first term in the Senate, and who Republicans derided then and now for his lack of experience and “cult of personality.” A former Democratic staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee observed both Obama and Rubio as freshmen on that prestigious committee. Obama was an immediate standout, he recalls, “not because he was a know-it-all,” but because he managed to make his questions and statements important and relevant despite being the last to speak because of his low seniority.

As for Rubio, this staffer says, “He never did a single impressive thing, and the bar is pretty low to be regarded as a thoughtful senator.”

Rubio is 44; Obama wasn’t much older than that at the time, but he had a seriousness of purpose about him that suggested a gravitas beyond his years. With Rubio, “He comes across as young not in a youthful-vigor way but in an unprepared-for-the-job way,” says this former staffer, identifying one of Rubio’s major challenges, being seen as presidential when the media describes him as baby-faced.

Rubio’s backers privately love the comparison with Clinton, who they credit with transforming the Democratic Party into a winning coalition. Rubio’s campaign pitch is that he’s the only one who is popular across the warring factions of the GOP, and that he can do what Clinton did, bring the party together and get the voters to give the GOP a fresh look, and bring Hispanics, Asians, and young people into the fold.

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Democrats tend to recoil from favorably comparing Rubio to Clinton. By the time Clinton ran in ’92, he had made a name for himself nationally as an innovative governor and policy wonk with a unique ability to connect with voters. His moniker in Arkansas was “Slick Willie” because he knew how to dodge and weave to accomplish his goals, and he was hard to pin down.

Still, says Galston, who worked in the ’92 campaign, “There’s just a fundamental difference between taking the position as an act of political self-definition, and trying to be as many things to as many people as possible. It’s possible to do either one and survive. It’s also possible to try either one and fail.”

The rap against Rubio is that he was always very ambitious, but what does he believe in? That same charge was leveled against Clinton, and it can be the mark of a skillful politician who adapts to changing circumstances. How many politicians out there who rise to the presidential level are true believers? They are the Bernie Sanders of the world, and they don’t typically get elected. Rubio is electable, and he’s trying to stay that way.