The Agenda

The Case Against Marco Rubio?

At Bloomberg View, Jonathan Alter has written, rather prematurely in my view, a column about Sen. Marco Rubio’s vice presidential prospects. Alter shares my view that New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is an impressive politician, though Martinez has explicitly ruled herself out of consideration as a running mate. In almost every other respect, however, I found myself disagreeing with Alter’s column:

Rubio is not the ideal vice-presidential candidate to solve Republicans’ trouble with Hispanics. Cuban- Americans have a big voice in Florida politics (where they already vote Republican) but make up only 4 percent of Hispanics nationwide. Mexican-Americans make up 66 percent of Hispanics, and tapping their potential at the polls may determine the results in swing states such as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. There’s no evidence that a Cuban-American who opposes even the DREAM Act (which would create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who finish high school and join the military or attend college) will bring other Hispanics out to vote or get them to switch parties.

It seems unlikely that any vice-presidential candidate can “solve Republicans’ trouble with Hispanics,” as it reflects a number of complex, interrelated factors: the large concentration of Latino voters in California, which we’ve discussed in the context of Ron Unz’s essay on the politics of immigration enforcement; the religious affiliation of the Latino population (Latino evangelicals tend to be more receptive to the GOP while those who don’t attend church regularly of any denomination are presumably less so, and the proportions matter); the economic status of the Latino population, which was heavily impacted by the housing bust, etc. So even if Rubio were of Mexican origin, it seems unlikely that he would “solve the problem.” Rubio is, however, relatively young and identifiably “ethnic.” Very few Americans have Kenyan fathers, yet a large number of African American and other “ethnic,” i.e., non-non-Hispanic white, voters nevertheless were more favorably inclined to Barack Obama on the basis of his shared status as an “ethnic” candidate. There are, to be sure, some complexities here, e.g., the perceived antagonism between “black and brown” constituencies in some regions where competition over status and resources is intense. Regardless, it’s not obvious that Rubio’s Cuban identity will prevent him from making a broader pan-ethnic appeal to Latino voters, and perhaps to voters from post-1965 communities, e.g., Asian Americans. 

First, the Washington Post reported in October that he “embellished” his background by falsely claiming throughout his political career that his parents fled Cuba after Fidel Castro’s Communist takeover in 1959. The article said Rubio’s parents in fact came from Cuba to Miami in 1956. At first glance, that might not seem like a big deal. And Rubio claimed there was no “functional difference” between the two dates in his heroic family story. “The essence of the story was not the date,” he told the Miami Herald.

Except that it was. Those Cubans who came to the U.S. in 1956 when Cuba, under Fulgencio Batista, was still a close American ally were economic immigrants like the millions of others who have arrived here seeking a better material life. Those who came after the 1959 revolution were political exiles. In the context of the Cuban-American experience, the “functional difference” is huge.

Rubio placed his family among the latter group when he emotionally told their story on the stump and in his campaign literature. This narrative was false, and it raises fundamental questions about his truthfulness.

This dog won’t hunt. It seems plausible that Rubio’s family lore was indeed embellished — but by Rubio’s parents, not by Rubio himself. The essence of the story was presumably the worldview Rubio learned at the knee of his parents. Moreover, circular economic migration was relatively common in the era before more aggressive immigration enforcement, i.e., Cubans would settle in the U.S. for a brief period of time before returning home. This context is important. One can easily imagine that Rubio’s parents intended to return home yet where unable to do so, which really does make them “political exiles” in a meaningful sense. The failure to understand this may reflect the fact that those levying the charge are not familiar with the experience of migration from a country that later plunges into chaos. 

Rubio’s friends and supporters in Miami’s Little Havana don’t care about the episode. But Hispanic economic immigrants could react differently if they see him as a pull-up-the-ladder guy. They have long envied and even resented political exiles because exiles are welcomed into the U.S. with open arms and allowed to settle here permanently. To learn that Rubio’s family was actually little different than the millions of immigrants seeking economic opportunity — the same ones that Rubio and other Republicans now say deserve no “amnesty” — might not go down so well.

One can see why the political left would work hard to advance this narrative. Yet it neglects the fact that a nontrivial number of foreign-born citizens and their children are not averse to immigration enforcement provided it is accompanied by the sense that those advocating immigration enforcement respect and admire legal immigrants. This is the message Republicans have failed to get across, and it is the message that a candidate in the vein of Rubio might, for a variety of reasons, have a somewhat easier time getting across. 

In July, Univision aired a story about the drug arrest 24 years ago of Rubio’s brother-in-law. It was a meaningless tabloid report with no impact on Rubio’s political standing. But the senator handled it badly. His staff told reporters that Univision had offered to kill the story in exchange for Rubio appearing on the network’s Sunday show. Even if true, that hardly justified the next step. Rubio’s surrogates demanded that Univision’s president of news resign and that the Republican presidential candidates boycott the Jan. 29 Univision debate on the eve of the Florida primary. (Telemundo, owned by NBC, will sponsor a debate instead.)

The boycott will conveniently allow the presidential candidates to avoid being confronted by Univision’s lead news anchor, Jorge Ramos, a fierce advocate of immigration reform who is also wildly popular in the Hispanic community. Imagine if President Barack Obama was feuding with a combination of Bryant Gumbel, Al Sharpton and Oprah Winfrey. Might cost him a little with black voters.

This is one of the more extraordinary claims in the article. My sense is that President Obama would not in fact lose votes to the GOP or to a Naderite primary challenger if Bryant Gumbel, Al Sharpton, and Oprah Winfrey feuded with him. Gumbel now hosts an excellent television program at HBO devoted to understanding the world of professional sports in a deeper, richer way. Though admired as a broadcaster, my sense is that few Americans have taken to naming their sons “Bryant” or “Gumbel” in his honor. Vanishingly few African Americans look to Al Sharpton as a political leader, as evidenced by the non-success of his presidential campaign. And Oprah Winfrey’s base at the height of her popularity consisted of working and middle class white women.  

I have my own misgivings about Rubio. He’s very young, for example. But Alter’s case against him is weak. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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