Marco Rubio, VP material?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 27, 2012


The most important elected Latino official in the Republican Party, Senator Marco Rubio has attributes that make him a formidable vice-presidential candidate. However, the fact that the 40-year old Cuban-American Senator from Florida is a Republican will limit his appeal to Hispanic voters elsewhere in the United States. Even in his own state, other Hispanics will be turned off by the conservative views held by Rubio. A front-runner to get the GOP VP spot, Rubio is closer to what many conservative Republicans would want Latinos to be in terms of ideology than what Latinos actually are.


Rubio was born in Florida in 1971 to a family that had migrated to the United States before the 1959 Cuban revolution. He grew up in Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada. After obtaining a Law Degree from the University of Miami in 1995, he interned for US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a leading Cuban-American politician in Florida.


A strong conservative with more than 20 years in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen has championed the embargo against Cuba and actively opposes left-leaning leaders like Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega. Though Ros-Lehtinen has also championed free-trade agreements with Latin American countries, her strongly ideological positions have also generated tensions with moderate leftist governments in Latin America.


Rubio first ran for office in 2000, when he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. By 2006, he was already the Speaker of the House. He ran for the US Senate in 2009, when incumbent Mel Martínez announced his retirement. Outgoing Florida Governor Charlie Christie was also running. Rubio was strongly identified with the conservative Tea Party movement while Christie was widely regarded as too liberal by Tea Party activists. Eventually, Christie resigned from the Republican Party and ran as an independent. In November of 2010, Rubio — having won the Republican Party primary — cruised to a landslide by defeating Christie and the Democratic candidate. He became a US senator at age 38.


Young, good-looking, perfectly bilingual, married with four children, Rubio has the perfect American dream story. The child of middle-class Cuban immigrants, Rubio grew up in a Catholic family that had a short experience with Mormonism.


Though they share some attributes, Rubio and Obama also have key differences. Obama achieved higher academic success (he went to Harvard, Rubio to the University of Miami) and had an early career as community organizer and academic, while Rubio entered politics shortly after getting his law degree. Still, the two men symbolize the notion that in the United States you can achieve anything with hard work and rigour. The release of his autobiography, An American Son, originally scheduled for October, has been moved earlier to May, feeding speculation about a possible VP bid.


However, Rubio seems to be in the wrong political party at the wrong time. After George W. Bush made inroads in attracting Latino votes, Republicans have all but abandoned such efforts. The harsh anti-immigration policies championed by some Republican leaders often sound anti-Latino. The growing influence of the conservative Tea Party movement has alienated moderates who would otherwise be naturally inclined to vote for a fiscally responsible Republican. Because Latinos have moderate, if not conservative, views in many social and moral issues, Republicans should find it easy to attract their support. But the perception that many Republicans are really against Hispanic immigration rather than just against illegal immigration has distanced Latinos from the GOP.


Since joining the Senate, Rubio has chosen to stick to conservative views rather than build bridges to the Latino community. Rubio opposes the DREAM Act, an initiative to legalize college students who were brought illegally to the US by their parents. His distance from issues important to the Hispanic community has underlined the widespread suspicion among Latinos that Cubans — because of the special treatment they receive as political refugees — do not share the same priorities as the rest of the Latino community.


Senator Rubio is not popular among Hispanics in the US. He is much more popular among Tea Party activists. He is the ideal Hispanic candidate for the notion of what conservative Republicans would want Hispanics to be. Yet, as a Senator, he has not made a conscious effort to reach out to the Hispanic community nor has he embraced the priorities that have been long held as important by them.


Marco Rubio might still end up as the VP choice in the Republican ticket. His nomination might help Republicans win in Florida, a state that is a must-win for Republicans if they are to defeat Obama. However, if Rubio is nominated, it is unlikely that a growing gap between the increasingly conservative Republican positions and the Hispanic community will be bridged. Latinos combine conservative views on social issues with progressive positions on immigration and social programmes aimed at expanding opportunities for the middle-class and the poor. Rubio does not share those values. In this election, politics will trump race.