David Harsanyi / May 16, 2014

Tell Me Again, Why Is Marco Rubio a Presidential Front-Runner?

On Sunday, Marco Rubio informed Jonathan Karl on ABC’s “This Week” that he is ready to be president. “I think a president has to have a clear vision of where the country needs to go and clear ideas about how to get it there,” he went on. “And I think we’re very blessed in our party to have a number of people that fit that criteria.” And Rubio seems a plausible option for Republicans in 2016. Falling somewhere between Jeb Bush-Chris Christie and the purportedly unelectable Rand Paul-Ted Cruz, Rubio is the sort of comfortable choice Republicans tend to decide on. As National Review’s Eliana Johnson points out, experts see numerous advantageous aspects to a Rubio presidential candidacy: He’s a proven conservative with a moderate demeanor. He’s comparatively youthful with a strong presence. And he has the ability to engage in Hispanic outreach. Hailing from an important state doesn’t hurt, either.

On Sunday, Marco Rubio informed Jonathan Karl on ABC’s “This Week” that he is ready to be president. “I think a president has to have a clear vision of where the country needs to go and clear ideas about how to get it there,” he went on. “And I think we’re very blessed in our party to have a number of people that fit that criteria.”

And Rubio seems a plausible option for Republicans in 2016. Falling somewhere between Jeb Bush-Chris Christie and the purportedly unelectable Rand Paul-Ted Cruz, Rubio is the sort of comfortable choice Republicans tend to decide on. As National Review’s Eliana Johnson points out, experts see numerous advantageous aspects to a Rubio presidential candidacy: He’s a proven conservative with a moderate demeanor. He’s comparatively youthful with a strong presence. And he has the ability to engage in Hispanic outreach. Hailing from an important state doesn’t hurt, either.

And yet…

For me, at least, the promise of Rubio seldom corresponds with the reality. Whenever I listen to him these days, all I hear is Mitt Romney. If he’s really imbued with all these formidable political skills, why do so many of his appearances feel stilted? If he’s one of the fresh faces of a new GOP, why are his speeches crammed with platitudes that might have packed a serious punch in 1984? It’s not that he’s substantively wrong (though he offers so little in that regard). It’s not that he’s off-putting. It’s that he never really generates the sort of excitement or displays the sort of political acumen his reputation might have you believe he can, should or will.

When Rubio was christened the “The Republican Savior” by Time in 2013, it was immigration reform (specifically his backing for a pathway to citizenship) that would be his first test of leadership – his chance, according to the magazine, to show Republicans “that he’s not just geographically, demographically and ideologically correct.” And did he pass? Whether you agree with him or not, Rubio’s time with the Gang of Eight featured some impressive moments. He didn’t shy away from critics. He went on talk radio and passionately argued his case. The base was angry but likely will forgive him. What should be more concerning, though, is the political naiveté he displayed allowing Democrats to use the issue – and him – to bludgeon the GOP. Rubio, in the end, was forced to step away from the entire mess, which makes it a failure on both a political level and a policy level.

And Rubio’s subsequent pandering was his way of letting everyone know he is “severely” conservative. His conservative voting record is first-rate, according to the American Conservative Union. But exactly how challenging has it been for a Republican senator in the minority to oppose Barack Obama over the past five years? Not very. Others with comparable ACU grades include Mitch McConnell and about a dozen others. There’s nothing wrong with Rubio’s boilerplate anti-Obama positioning, but there’s nothing especially unique about it, either.

Successful presidential candidates will often tap into the restive anxieties of American life – Ronald Reagan with invasive government and Obama with the inequities of capitalism, to name two. Perhaps an issue will arise that Rubio can grab, but right now he’s a bit out of step with his own party’s evolution. It was amusing to see Rubio following Mike Lee and others, tepidly aiming his guns at corporate cronyism this week: “Big companies may not like big government, but they can afford to deal with it.” The issue seemed manufactured. He also unveiled a yawn-inducing “policy agenda” this week, which was overshadowed by his inability to handle some uncomplicated questions about climate change.

Rubio, it should be noted, saves his most potent rhetoric for foreign policy. A 2012 National Journal piece, “Accepting the Neocon Torch: Marco Rubio,” reported: “When he pushed for a more forceful U.S. response in confronting a dictator in Syria and autocrat in Nicaragua, Rubio said, he was thwarted – mainly by Republicans. ‘Today in the Senate on foreign policy, the further you move to the right, the likelier you are to wind up on the left.’” Well, the idea that interventionism is an inherently right-wing position is false. More importantly, though, as conservatism moves toward a more balanced debate on the limits of foreign policy, Rubio’s hard-line position will be less appealing to voters (unless events change this reality, which can always happen).

So what exactly has Rubio done to merit his front-runner status?

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