This summer, in an act of literary masochism, I read not one but two books about Marco Rubio. I came away from his memoir, An American Son, and Manuel Roig-Franzia’s excellent biography, The Rise of Marco Rubio, with the queasy feeling many Republicans must have had when they began reading Obama books in 2007 or 2008: this isn’t the guy you want to see on the other side of the line.
It’s not that Rubio is as smart and perceptive as Obama. Not even close. But he’s likable and authentic. I expected American Son to be a linear narrative about a child of immigrants who through talent and dedication validates his parents’ sacrifice and realizes the American Dream. But it’s an edgier, more self-critical tale of a somewhat immature and egocentric child of immigrants who torments his parents and alienates the woman he loves until football, Catholicism, and politics give him the direction he needs. It’s also the story of a young man who’s far more interested in politics than ideology. Reading Roig-Franzia, and Rubio himself, you get the impression that Marco Rubio has only one longstanding ideological conviction: hatred of Fidel Castro. What he fell in love with on the streets of Miami’s raucous Cuban ghetto was the political game. The best analogy might be John F. Kennedy, who also learned the art of politics in a parochial ethnic community but through personal skill and generational change was able to transcend it.
As Roig-Franzia makes clear, Rubio’s early views on immigration were shaped more by immigrant and ethnic kinship than any right-wing slogan about securing borders and enforcing the law. In the Florida legislature, Rubio cosponsored legislation to give migrant farmworkers more rights and supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants’ kids. He also fancied himself a pragmatic dealmaker, working as speaker of the Florida House to pass a statewide cap-and-trade framework for combating climate change on the grounds that Washington was likely to mandate it and the Sunshine State might as well be ready.
In 2010, Rubio was savvy enough to see an opening with the nascent Tea Party after Florida’s moderate Republican governor, Charlie Crist, made the mistake of hugging Barack Obama. And Rubio skillfully grafted the Tea Party’s anti-government message onto his own hatred of Castro with lines like: “My parents lost their country to a government. I’m not going to lose mine.” But everything about his political career in Florida helps explain why, on entering the U.S. Senate, he opted to quarantine himself in a back room with John McCain and Chuck Schumer and craft a bill that gives immigrants a path to citizenship.
Turns out I should have saved my Barnes & Noble gift card. The Senate immigration bill, at least for now, has crippled Rubio’s presidential hopes. Between April and July, notes the estimable Thomas Edsall, Rubio’s support in New Hampshire dropped by almost two thirds. Of the first seven national polls of Republican voters tallied by Real Clear Politics starting last November, Rubio led in six. But he hasn’t led any of the last four. That’s not surprising given that, according to the Pew Research Center, Republicans are four times more likely to want the GOP to move in a more conservative direction on immigration than to moderate its stance. Sarah Palin has even called on conservatives to challenge Rubio in the 2016 Florida Republican primary.
While I was reading about Rubio, he was being eclipsed by another Dixie Republican senator of Cuban heritage, Ted Cruz. Cruz is undoubtedly smarter than Rubio. He’s far more ideological, having spent his teenage afternoons reading Ludwig von Mises at the Free Enterprise Education Foundation while Rubio was pounding wide receivers at South Miami High. Cruz is more arrogant, having alienated even some Republican senators with his condescending put-downs. He’s more prone to demagoguery, having suggested—based on no evidence whatsoever—that Chuck Hagel might be receiving money from North Korea. Cruz is less interested in passing legislation. Indeed, he’s leading the charge to shut down the government in order to defund Obamacare. And unlike Rubio, Cruz’s convictions just happen to match up perfectly with the animal spirits of the Republican base he’s courting for president. Which is to say, during his time in Washington, he’s never done anything politically brave.
Cruz is eclipsing Rubio, it’s worth recalling, at a time when the American people’s biggest complaints about the GOP are that it’s “too unwilling to compromise” and “too extreme.” (PDF) Were the Republican Party’s shrinking cohort of right-wing activists not sheltered from the rest of America by the informational cocoon Fox News has built for them, they would see in Rubio’s immigration work a politician struggling, not always coherently but with a degree of humility and good will, to show younger, poorer, newer, less white Americans that the GOP gives a damn about them. They might also realize that this kind of inclusive gesture, combined with Rubio’s natural charisma, offers the chance to partially undo the GOP’s reputation as a party beholden to blue bloods and bigots. Instead, they’ve discarded Rubio in favor of Cruz, a man who combines Sarah Palin’s worldview, Richard Nixon’s commitment to fair play, and Al Gore’s folksy charm.
Somewhere, a woman in a pantsuit is laughing.