Rubio's 2016 strategy: Become everyone's second choice

That headline sounds like a joke but I think this is smart strategic thinking. Given the cards he has to play, this is how he should play them.

The former Florida House speaker, just four months into his fourth year in Congress, has avoided travel to the early primary states. He isn’t busy jockeying for position. Rather, he has quietly focused on building a political organization that would serve as the basis for a presidential campaign, burnishing his policy and legislative resume, and honing the Image of the sort of consensus Republican who historically has captured the GOP nomination.

Rubio’s approach to 2016 has been crafted with one goal: To become the first choice of “many” GOP primary voters and the second choice of “even more.” His advisers envision assembling a solid base of support that prefers Rubio above all others, while attracting the admiration, or at least imprimatur of acceptability, of an even larger group that would gravitate to him if their first choice falls short…

[Rubio’s steering] Committee members have committed only to raising money for Rubio’s 2016 Senate re-election and Reclaim America, his political action committee. But in interviews with a half dozen members, they said a Rubio presidential bid is appealing because he is a mainstream Republican capable of uniting the party and winning the general election. Rubio might be called a Tea Partier because of his staunchly conservative record and because he won his Senate seat by challenging a sitting Republican governor, but they contend the label is a misnomer.

I’ve always thought Rubio’s support of immigration reform last year was part of a calculated gamble to position himself for a presidential run. (Which is not to suggest that he didn’t support the bill on the merits. I’m sure he did, contrary to pretty much everything he said about immigration as a candidate in 2010.) He knew that if he spent six years in the Senate as a pure red-meat Ted-Cruz-style tea partier, the GOP establishment would have written him off as a conservative ideologue who could never be trusted with the party’s nomination. That’s a bad place to be for an aspiring pol given the establishment’s track record in presidential primaries. So he took a chance. He decided to try to impress the donor class by quarterbacking the Senate’s big amnesty push, specifically by selling the bill to the reluctant right. If he had pulled it off and gotten tea partiers onboard, he’d be the prohibitive favorite for the nomination, the guy who worked political magic in converting right-wingers to the cause of amnesty. He rolled the dice on that and lost — but only with righties, not with the establishment. They were grateful for the effort, of course, and now had reason to see Rubio as something more than just a Cruz-type dogmatist. (See the quote in the excerpt above about his own steering committee rejecting the “tea party” label.) Meanwhile, it wasn’t an outlandishly crazy bet for Rubio to think he could have brought conservatives onboard. The guy got elected to the U.S. Senate in a major state before he turned 40; his retail skills are formidable, to put it mildly. If anyone could have sold the bill to amnesty skeptics, especially while the media was trumpeting the GOP’s washout with Latino voters in the 2012 election, it’s him.

Didn’t work, though, so now he’s in a strange position electorally. He’s liked by the establishment, although not quite as much as Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, and disliked by the base — although not quite as much as Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. He’s not going to beat Jeb or Christie straight up in a battle for the establishment and he’s not going to beat Ted Cruz or Rand Paul straight up in a battle for the right. (Actually, he might have a shot against Paul depending upon how big of an issue Paul’s foreign policy views become on the right.) So he’s maneuvering himself as a compromise candidate: If Bush or Christie beats Cruz and Paul early, the Cruz/Paul fans *might* flock to Rubio as a guy whom, while not ideal, can at least stop the greater RINO. If the opposite happens, with Cruz or Paul squelching Bush and Christie early, the establishment might swing around to Rubio as a guy whom, while not their first choice, can at least potentially stop the tea-party monster. In other words, Rubio understands his niche in the race — he’s no longer anyone’s frontrunner but he can still be a highly effective “anyone but X” choice to whichever faction is eager to stop Candidate X in the primaries. The trick for him is figuring out how to maintain that niche if/when Scott Walker jumps into the race. Walker is the ultimate 2016 wild card because he’s playing on the same middle ground as Rubio but without a major liability like Rubio has. If you’re not comfortable with either the hardcore RINOs or the hardcore conservatives, a description that fits oodles of “somewhat conservative” casual Republican voters, it’s the guy with executive experience who vanquished the unions, not Rubio, who’s your guy, no?

One thing to watch out for, though. If Jeb doesn’t run, Rubio may transform himself into a full-bore establishment candidate, calculating that he can defeat a weakened Christie head to head for the donor class’s support. You’ll know if he starts talking up immigration reform again that that’s the way he’s going. Exit question: Pretend that Rubio had never supported the Gang of Eight bill and was still a conservative in good standing with the base. Where would he rank now compared to Paul and Cruz in the battle for the tea-party vote in 2016?

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David Strom 5:21 PM on December 09, 2022