As noted in this morning’s post, the thinking on Rubio is that he can’t run if Jeb does. Their political operations, each based in Florida, overlap too much. And given that Jeb has already sniffed around and concluded that he’ll have the money and personnel he needs to run a national campaign, that either means Rubio’s going to run with his B-team of staffers and donors or he’s not going to run at all. Given that there’s another six years in the Senate on his plate if he wants it, why roll the dice on running for president under those circumstances and risk ending up out of public life by 2017? If he stays in Congress, he’ll be just 53 years old on election day 2024. The guy will be viable for higher office literally for decades to come.
But let’s say he’s got the itch and decides to run anyway. Does he have a path? One of the misfortunes of Bush potentially muscling Rubio out of the race, say righty Ramesh Ponnuru and lefty Danny Vinik, is that Rubio’s arguably shown the most promise of any serious 2016 candidate in appealing to the middle class from the right. If that’s the secret to turning out the “missing” white voters from 2012, he may be the GOP’s best bet against Hillary. Vinik:
Rubio’s Social Security plan was praised by reformers like National Review’s Reihan Salam and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat. He’s working with Senator Mike Lee on a tax plan that would expand the Child Tax Credit, an idea that Robert Stein, another reformicon, promoted in Room to Grow, and on a health care plan with Representative Paul Ryan. In June, Rubio gave a major policy address at a YG Network–sponsored event in Washington, D.C., in which he praised many of these ideas.
In other words, more than any other Republican, Rubio is working to develop a new policy agenda to meet today’s challenges, and much of that agenda is coming from the reform conservatives. If Bush’s decision to run for president causes Rubio to forego his own presidential run, the reformicons will lose their best chance to influence the Republican primary.
Paleocon Michael Brendan Dougherty, despairing at the thought of another interventionist, statist Republican presidency sold under the heading of “accountability,” puts it this way: “If people want to try Bushism again, they should at least have the decency to demand that Marco Rubio’s face be stretched over that political zombie’s head.” Damn. Back to my question, though: Does Rubio have a path with Bush in the race? In theory, he’s got the same one that I described here for Scott Walker. Namely, if forced to choose between a tea-party bombthrower like Ted Cruz and (shudder) another Bush, the great mass of “somewhat conservative” voters may decide to choose the bowl of porridge that’s neither too hot nor too cold but just right, i.e. Rubio. He’d have plenty of GOP wonks behind him, precisely because of the reformist impulses he’s shown that Vinik noted. Rubio will have a tougher time than Scott Walker in filling that “just right” niche, though, for one simple reason: Whereas Walker has one great asset that he can use to bank conservative votes, no matter how squishy he gets in reaching out to the middle, Rubio has one great liability that’ll limit his ability to do so. Walker can get away with pandering to the center because, when push comes to shove, he went all in on collective bargaining reform in Wisconsin and beat the left at every turn. Rubio’s in the opposite position, having gone all in on amnesty in the Senate only to be beaten badly and left having to prove and re-prove his conservative bona fides on various issues ever since.
Maybe that’s not fatal. If I’m right that a big bunch of “somewhat conservative” voters will be looking for a “Not Bush” and a “Not Cruz,” Rubio fits the bill. But then, so does Walker. And Walker has a line of credit with the right that Rubio no longer does. How does Rubio get past him to become the consensus “hybrid” choice? I don’t get it. Having said that, though, if you’re rooting for Cruz, you probably want Rubio in this race. Although he’s a threat to pull some votes from Cruz, he’s a bigger threat to pull votes from Jeb among centrists who want a guy who’s hawkish, moderate on immigration, might have special appeal to Latino voters, and who won’t have to spend half the campaign explaining to voters how very different he is from his brother, who left office with an approval rating lower than Obama’s. All you need to do now is convince Rubio that his slim chance to outmaneuver Bush and Walker and Cruz, not to mention the other 27 people who’ll be running, is worth giving up a Senate seat for.
Exit question: If we’re going to nominate a pro-amnesty super-hawk, shouldn’t we pass on Rubio and go for the gold?