Sen. Marco Rubio sailed into office on the tea-party wave, wagging his finger at the Obama administration’s fiscal mischief. But in the Senate, foreign policy has become his passion.
Rubio, in an interview with National Review Online, says that the late senator Jesse Helms, the firebrand conservative from North Carolina, is his model.
“Politicians are not heroes,” Rubio says. “But if you look at Jesse Helms, he had a tremendous amount of influence in this place.”
Rubio respects how Helms fought hard as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, punching back at the princes of liberalism. Over five terms, he notes, Helms became a leading hawk.
Rubio is already becoming one. But you would not know it from his cramped transitional office in the bowels of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The walls are blank, the low-slung coffee table sparse. One lonely picture is perched near a ratty sofa: an autographed photo of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, slipped into a cheap frame.
Rubio smiles when I remark on the jail-cell styling. He often calls Washington “weird,” full of cluttered customs. The Newt photo, he shrugs, is nothing more than a memento from his days as speaker of the Florida state legislature.
Since coming to Washington, Rubio has dismissed the notion that he is an instant messiah, the Republican Obama. Yet the tag has been hard to escape. As the GOP’s lone Hispanic senator, the son of Cuban exiles, and with good looks, his name is repeatedly dropped in conversations about 2012. Some Beltway insiders pine for the bilingual attorney to jump into the race; others peg him as a likely vice-presidential nominee.
Rubio swats away the chatter. For the record, he is not running for president, nor interested in the number-two slot. But he is looking forward to helping Republicans beat President Obama at the polls.
Rubio has vocally opposed an increase to the federal government’s debt limit and chastised the president for not being “serious” about deficit reduction. He has also thrown cold water on Republicans. Before the Senate adjourned for spring recess, Rubio bucked leadership and opposed the Boehner–White House deal to keep the government running, since he found the attached spending cuts insufficient.
But foreign policy is Rubio’s calling. He relishes his spot on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he has been tapped to be a ranking subcommittee member. His portfolio focuses on the Western Hemisphere, building relationships with neighbors on trade and terrorism. His work from that post is piled about the room.
“There is no replacement for America in the world,” Rubio says. “If America withdraws from the world stage, it will create a vacuum, and that vacuum will not be filled by someone better than us.”
American exceptionalism was an important part of Rubio’s insurgent 2010 campaign, where he topped then-governor Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent, and congressman Kendrick Meek, the Democratic nominee. In the Senate, it has become his animating idea, the theme that peppers his interviews and legislative interests.
For Rubio, the concept is more than an abstract talking point. “Having grown up around people who were born somewhere else, I recognized that America’s influence in the world is part of who we are,” he says.
Right after he took office, Rubio visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, taking a handheld video camera along with him to document his travels. Last winter, after the campaign was over, he traveled to Israel. All of these journeys, he says, have shaped his perspective. On Afghanistan, for instance, he remains an optimist after his visit, confident that the U.S. is doing the right thing.
“Ultimately, if we can provide a level of security there, the Afghans have a chance to build a functional state for themselves,” Rubio says. “You can read about these things, but I think when you visit these places, you get to interact with people and see things firsthand.”
Read about them he does. The senator keeps two well-thumbed bestsellers at his side: Courting Disaster by former White House speechwriter Mark Thiessen, and Power, Faith, and Fantasy by former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. The former is a defense of the Central Intelligence Agency’s handling of terrorists during the past decade, as well as a critique of President Obama; the latter is a comprehensive history of the United States in the Middle East, from the days of George Washington to the present.
“I don’t read fiction,” Rubio chuckles. “I’m just not into it.”
Beyond that pair, Rubio has recently read Decision Points, the autobiography of George W. Bush. Bush’s brother, Jeb, the former Florida governor, is one of Rubio’s mentors. The senator also deeply respects 43. In January, Rubio hired Cesar Conda, a former adviser to Dick Cheney, to be his chief of staff.
“I think history is going to be much kinder to George Bush than his contemporaries have been,” Rubio says. “Maybe this year, as we reach the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it will be a good time to reflect on what the world looks like and the very real challenge we continue to face with terrorism.”
“It is so important that conservatism does not translate into isolationism,” Rubio asserts. “Isolationism has never worked for America. It is not going to work in the 21st century.”
“That doesn’t mean confrontation for the sake of confrontation; that doesn’t mean we go around and settle every dispute in the world,” Rubio says. “But if America is engaged, we have influence, and if we have influence, we can help determine the outcome. We cannot guarantee outcomes, but we can help determine them in a way that is positive for the world.”
Libya was an early testing ground for Rubio. He was the first senator to call on the State Department to “derecognize” the government of Moammar Qaddafi and has actively pushed the Obama administration to “forge a new path” by detailing a comprehensive strategy for the region. The United States, he says, must adjust to the swift tides in the Middle East, encouraging liberty wherever possible.
Rubio argues the U.S. cannot become complacent or duck from leadership, even if global challenges grow increasingly complicated. He thinks back to his childhood when asked to explain why he is so outspoken about sustaining American power.
“I grew up in the Reagan era, where these issues were front and center. I grew up under the shadow of the Cold War,” Rubio replies. “The most influential event of my youth was the fall of the Soviet Union, which was unimaginable ten years before. In the early 1980s, I was young, but I vividly remember how the whole world was defined by the conflict.”
Rubio recalls how the U.S. was unabashedly involved in a variety of regions. “We were engaged in Nicaragua, we were engaged in El Salvador, and against Cubans in Grenada. We were engaged all over, even in Poland, when they were standing up to the Russians.”
Remember, Rubio says, “many of the same people who are now asking us to mind our own business, to accept this new order in the world where America is not influential, are the same people who were telling us more than 20 years ago to stop talking about the Soviets, that we had to deal with them as equals, that we cannot be the cops of the world.”
“Well,” Rubio grins, “Ronald Reagan didn’t listen to them.”
Neither will Rubio.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.