WHAT’S HE THINKING?

Rubio’s Embargo Anger Plays to the Past

In his aggressive anti-Obama play on Cuba, Rubio is pandering to a constituency that barely exists now— and he looks cowardly doing it.

Is Marco Rubio the stupidest politician in Washington? Okay, probably not. The House of Representatives is bursting to the rafters with contenders for the title. But after watching Rubio’s comical response to the Cuba announcement, we should all begin to consider his credentials.

The Florida GOP senator stormed out of the gate Wednesday in the highest of dudgeons. “This president is the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime,” Rubio thundered, adding that Congress will never lift the embargo and that he will do all within his power to undo Barack Obama’s treachery. Grrrrr.

As Bugs Bunny used to say, what a maroon. Now I know, you think I’m being harsh, or that I’m simply wrong, because Rubio is from South Florida and of Cuban stock and I am neither of those things, so doesn’t he maybe know better than I? Actually, no, not this time. He is not reflecting here the views of the Cuban-American community of South Florida as they’ve been repeatedly expressed in polls. He is instead representing the views of only the most reactionary (and rapidly aging and, to be blunt about it, dying off) portion of that community. If he somehow finds himself running against Hillary Clinton in 2016, he—some 25 years her junior—will have masterfully turned the neat trick of being on the side of the past while she speaks to the future.

The polling that supports my contention is voluminous. The Cuban-American vote has changed dramatically in the last decade. In 2002, Pew found back in June, Cubans in the United States identified themselves as being Republicans over Democrats by a margin of 64 to 22 percent. By 2014, that advantage still existed but was statistically meaningless: 47 percent Republican, 44 percent Democratic. In 2012, Obama narrowly beat Mitt Romney among Florida Cubans, according to exit polls. Likewise, in this year’s gubernatorial race, Democrat Charlie Crist beat Republican incumbent Rick Scott among Cuban voters by 50-46 percent.

Get the picture? Things have changed, and seismically. The Florida Cuban vote simply is not very Republican anymore, and it’s not a conservative bloc. Now let’s look at those voters with specific reference to their views on Cuba.

The most comprehensive set of numbers comes to us from Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute, which has been polling on such questions for 20 years now. The institute put out new numbers just this past summer (PDF), and they are eye-popping. And this is a poll, remember, not of Latinos, or of Cuban-Americans across the country. This is 1,000 Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade County—the subgroup that we would expect to be the most anti-Castro one imaginable.

Start with the embargo. It’s close, but a majority opposed continuing it, by 52-48 percent. Most age cohorts still supported it, but those who left Cuba after 1995 were against the embargo by 58-42 percent. Eighteen-to-29 year olds wanted to end the embargo by a whopping 62-8 percent. And when the Pavlovian word “embargo” was dropped from the questioning and respondents were asked if the United States should expand commerce with Cuba in specific realms, the yeses were overwhelming: increase business relations, 76-24; sell more food, 77-23; sell more medicine, 82-18.

And how about the matter at hand, the restoration of diplomatic relations? Well, 68 percent favored, and 32 percent opposed. The only age cohort that came out against relations were those 65 and older; among those 64 and under, more than three-quarters supported full diplomacy.

So who is Rubio representing with his outrage? A shrinking and increasingly irrelevant sub-constituency that is understood by most Americans with awareness of the issue to have held our Cuba policy hostage quite long enough. And what deepens the mystery to me is what his hard-line position gets him.

Is it money? There’s money in the Cuban-American universe, certainly, but there’s Senate-race money, not presidential-race money. Is it their votes in a 2016 GOP presidential primary in the state? It could be that. I guess he feels he has to compete now with Jeb Bush for this vote, so he’s running around firing pistol shots into the air to prove he’s the real Castro-hater. But even there I wonder if the Cuban vote in Florida, even the Republican Cuban vote, is going to be strongly against this. By 2016, people will have had time to adjust to this, and they’ll see that the sky didn’t fall in. In fact, they might well see in these next two years that an influx of Yankee dollars and iPads and all the rest will have perhaps not toppled the regime but done more to open up the society than the hard line ever did.

Time will prove Rubio’s reaction to have been a major error. And it won’t be his first. He thought he’d roll the dice and be a leader on immigration, but it collapsed, and he got spanked by Laura Ingraham (metaphorically I mean!) and somersaulted to the safe reactionary position. Then he tried to win back some centrist cred with a few speeches on squish topics like community colleges, which is actually a fine thing to pay attention to and more people should, but the experts in the field whom I consult found his ideas to be reheated leftovers.

So now here he is, pandering to a constituency that by 2016 will be thinned and by 2020 functionally won’t exist. Compare to Rand Paul, who, as The Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi reports, came out in favor of the deal. And compare, as noted up top, to Secretary Clinton, who spent years quietly pushing a modernized Cuba policy. This is intelligence and vision. Rubio’s stance is pure cowardice.

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And speaking of intelligence and vision, you’ve got to give it up for Obama on this one. If Syria is his foreign-policy low point—and it is; the butchery of the dictator with whom we have no gripe continues apace with little notice—then the Cuba shift is arguably his high point.

The highest form of political courage is doing the right thing when the mob is against it. This isn’t quite that, as the above polling shows. On the other hand, it’s not as if Americans were clamoring for this change. That’s a kind of courage, too: doing the right thing when the only people who really care are the ones who are going to despise you. But time and history will render an unambiguous verdict on this matter, as Rubio shall soon see.