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‘Once sworn into office, the victors reverted to type. In their view, apparently, the ends justified the means.” So said Ronald Reagan, speaking in March of 1975. But it could be Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, in the summer of 2009.
The 38-year-old former speaker of the Florida house of representatives is running against Gov. Charlie Crist in a primary for the Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Mel Martinez.
Rubio has been billed as the Republican answer to Barack Obama. But at a time when some are aching for the second coming of the Gipper, he is more believable evoking our 40th president.
The young candidate is fond of the March 1975 speech, in which Reagan firmly proclaimed his timeless conservative principles: fiscal responsibility, small government, and law and order. Reagan emphasized: “A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers. . . . And if there are those who cannot subscribe to these principles, then let them go their way.”
Rubio would have Crist go his way after his term as governor is up, without adding a Senate seat to his résumé. Rubio has been critical of Crist for buying into the federal “stimulus” package earlier this year. Rubio recently Tweeted: “Florida unemployment now highest since 1975. The stimulus package my opponent supported is really working well, isn’t it?” Rubio talks about “meaningful tax reform . . . putting government in its proper role . . . [and] incentivizing the innovator.” He insists that “unresolved problems get harder and harder to solve,” which is the principal reason he’s so adamantly against the bad Band-Aid of the stimulus.
Rubio exudes a candid self-possession that is rare among politicians. And substance accompanies his Reagan quotes. Whereas retiring senator Martinez, who was born in Cuba, cast a vote for Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor as a matter of Hispanic pride, Rubio refuses to play on his heritage (his parents are Cuban exiles). He’s an American, and he has no interest in hyphenated self-descriptions or in contributing to balkanization. He’s to the right of conservative Jeb Bush on immigration and speaks with moral confidence on world affairs, despite his youth. Shortly after the post-election uprisings in Iran, Rubio bemoaned President Obama’s refusal to speak with the same kind of voice on behalf of the Iranian people.
“I never thought I’d see the day when a conservative was the insurgent in a Republican primary,” Rubio says. But the powers that be in the Republican party — notably the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which endorsed Crist almost immediately after he announced he was running for the seat — have simple reasons for supporting Crist. The Florida governor knows how to raise money, and his clout and name recognition would almost guarantee that the Senate seat would stay in Republican hands at a time when the Republicans have only 40 seats, with six incumbents soon to retire.
In two recent polls on the Senate primary, Rubio is 22 points behind in one and 29 points behind in the other. But that can be considered good news: Rubio was 46 points behind in May.
That’s the argument made by Rubio adviser Pat Shortridge, who in a recent memo wrote: “While there is still one year and five days to go until Primary Election Day, the numbers have been narrowing over the past 90 days without the Rubio campaign running a single advertisement and despite Marco’s relatively low name identification. The tortoise keeps gaining on the hare.”
Come to think of it, Rubio’s hair isn’t bad, either. (These things won’t win an election, but they can help.) And if he can stay in the race — and manage to quash the rumors that he’s not in it to win — you will be talking about him a year from now wherever you live.
And, yes, the Obama comparisons will only increase — a young pol who surges from behind to take out an “inevitable” establishment candidate. (National Review borrows from the Obama campaign for the cover of our current issue: A photo of Rubio appears above the tag line “Yes, He Can.”)
“I’m not Don Quixote here,” Rubio makes clear. “This campaign embodies everything you’re hearing at the town halls.”
Rubio is running not just against Crist, but also against the whole welfare-state mentality, as Americans flock to town-hall meetings to raise their voices in opposition to a government takeover of health care. “We’re facing the false choice to surrender liberties,” he tells me. It’s a reminder Republicans need to hear as much as anyone.