If Rubio has failed to distinguish himself as an ideas man in the Senate, he’s hoping to succeed on a much bigger stage. Rubio is actively preparing to run for the presidency in 2016, and the image his campaign hopes to project is that of an innovative policy reformer. It will stress that he hasn’t been in office for four years but for 14, the majority of them in leadership positions at the local and state levels. This, his team thinks, will help refute the inevitable comparisons to Barack Obama: young, fresh-faced, first-term senator with rich rhetorical gifts but no deep policy knowledge.
The strategy also reflects Team Rubio’s view of the 2016 GOP field. Predictable roles are already being filled: Jeb Bush, the trusted establishment figure; Ted Cruz, the tea-party agitator; Ben Carson, the insurgent outsider. Rubio has played to all of these audiences at various points and could choose to compete for them in 2016. But there is a more attractive option. Team Rubio sees a vacuum in the Republican Party, one to be filled by a conservative intellectual armed with daring policy proposals who can turn the contest into what the late conservative icon Jack Kemp called a “battle of ideas.”
This would have been Ryan’s space to occupy. Leaders of the “reform conservative” movement—a nascent network of academics, writers, and policy intellectuals who want to rebrand the Republican Party as proactive and solution-oriented—failed to prod Ryan into a presidential run in 2012 and held out hope he would try in 2016. Instead, Ryan announced he would stay in Congress, a decision that Rubio and his allies were banking on. Now, the senator from Florida is positioning himself to be the reformers’ champion. And to pull it off, he’s deliberately downplaying his greatest perceived strength.