Marco Rubio, the Unfinished Candidate

February 14, 2013 Topic: Domestic PoliticsImmigration Region: United States

Marco Rubio, the Unfinished Candidate

The Florida senator's State of the Union rebuttal was a missed opportunity.

It’s already been branded “the gulp heard ‘round the world.” Midway through the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Florida senator Marco Rubio awkwardly leaned over, grabbed a small water bottle from off-camera, and took a drink, all while barely breaking eye contact with the viewer. It was the culmination of a performance in which the rising star and potential 2016 presidential candidate was just a bit off. His gestures were too big. He didn’t seem to be looking directly into the camera. His voice was thin. He looked young. Voters aren’t disembodied points of perfect rationality—they’re human, and can’t help but judge candidates on insubstantial things. Rubio didn’t show the gravitas and poise we expect from a president. “God has a funny way of reminding us we’re human,” said Rubio of the gulp, but candidates must humanize themselves in the right way. Obama is a master of this—his visible love for his family and his sense of humor may do more for his support among young people than his policies.

Rubio’s speech was also imperfect, though its chief flaw was not what he said, but what he didn’t say. Rubio is a key figure in shaping the coming immigration reform. He’s also the son of immigrants. Obama said surprisingly little about immigration reform in his address, running bloodlessly through some of the technical and security criteria that would be important. Rubio thus had a tremendous opportunity. He could have framed the entire immigration discussion in personal and emotionally appealing terms. He did this expertly at last year’s Republican National Convention, telling the audience of how his mother’s parents “went to bed hungry so their children wouldn’t,” of how his grandfather believed that “there was no limit to how far I could go, because I was an American,” and of how his father, a bartender, worked sixteen-hour days and “stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room.” Telling this story would have let the GOP take the lead on immigration while projecting a positive image. It also would have further boosted Rubio’s popular appeal. Instead, Rubio devoted a few short sentences to immigration, almost all of them boilerplate, and then moved on to other subjects. Obama can now set the tone on immigration as he pleases.

Rubio gave the speech a second time in Spanish, which the more right-leaning talking heads on CNN agreed was a Very Good Idea. They were all sure that this would make a splash in the Latino community. So I flipped through the Washington area’s ample selection of Spanish-language television networks to see Rubio give the speech again, with the hope that he’d at least look a bit more presidential on his second attempt. Yet I couldn’t find it. I may have simply searched too late or looked in the wrong places, but that should not have mattered if Rubio’s giving a speech in Spanish had had such a magnetic effect on Latinos. The talking heads (¿cabezas parlantes?) would still have been talking. There would have been crawl lines and updates. There was nothing of the sort. It’s worth noting, too, that one of the networks was showing a telenovela with English subtitles. American Latinos don’t all speak Spanish, and the vast majority can speak English. The GOP’s weak performance among Latinos isn’t a translation problem. There are some genuine ideological differences—polls put Latinos to its left on some issues—but the practical problem is rhetorical. Some Republican values can resonate deeply with Latinos and with immigrant communities generally. Ask any child of first-generation immigrants whether their parents push them to work hard. Ask anyone with the guts to seek opportunity in a new country whether they believe in entrepreneurship. Rubio can preach these values, and maybe carve off a slice of the Latino electorate for his party. He didn’t do that on Tuesday.

There were some bright spots in Rubio’s remarks. He said almost nothing about foreign policy, which was probably a smart move given his neoconservative advisers. (Rand Paul’s response speech for the Tea Party said even less on the subject, which was unfortunate, since he is well-equipped to voice concerns about the targeted-killing policy, and polls show room to maneuver on this issue.)

But these lines particularly stood out:

And the truth is every problem can’t be solved by government. Many are caused by the moral breakdown in our society. And the answers to those challenges lie primarily in our families and our faiths, not our politicians.

On one level, this is a dog whistle, one of several in the speech, to socially conservative voters. Yet it hints at a new direction. Open discussion of hot-button social issues like gay marriage is becoming risky for Republican candidates, who need to keep the religious right in tow without alienating an increasingly moderate middle. The GOP might be able to bring its social values into the twenty-first century by speaking about the importance of character, integrity and family. Strong stances here will always find supporters, and they’re hard for progressives to talk about.

We shouldn’t attach any grand significance to Rubio’s imperfect performance. The next election is nearly four years away. One bad speech doesn’t erase his story or his appeal. (It also won’t erase his mediocre numbers among Latinos.) Rubio is still rough around the edges. He’ll need to establish foreign-policy credentials before 2016, but he doesn’t have to do it right away—and it’s probably good to wait for the current toxicity to dissipate so he doesn’t get pinned down. What’s most important, though, is for him to stop listening to the party leadership on immigration. He must keep telling his story like he did at the convention. It was too good a speech to give only once.

John Allen Gay is an assistant editor at The National Interest. His book (co-authored with Geoffrey Kemp) War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in early 2013.