In the weeks after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, no Republican appeared to have a brighter future than Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Young, Spanish-speaking, and oratorically gifted, he seemed like the answer to everything ailing the GOP—he was the anti-Romney.
Many Republicans agreed. Charles Krauthammer, the influential conservative columnist, called on his party to embrace immigration reform and enlist Rubio to lead the way. “Imagine Marco Rubio advancing such a policy on the road to 2016,” Krauthammer gushed. “It would transform the landscape. He’d win the Hispanic vote. Yes, win it.” Time magazine dubbed Rubio “The Republican Savior.” Political forces looked to be aligning in a way that would practically anoint him the GOP front-runner for 2016. Last March, Rubio solidified his “savior” status by almost knocking off Kentucky Senator Rand Paul in the annual Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, a popular cattle call for Republican presidential aspirants.
Rubio, whose presidential ambitions are plain, heeded the call and became the Republican face of the push for comprehensive immigration reform. His efforts paid off last June when the Senate passed a bipartisan bill. Then immigration reform—and Rubio—smacked into a brick wall.
Even before the Senate vote, grass-roots conservatives were in revolt. Antipathy toward politicians who would grant “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants was particularly intense among Tea Partyers, the same group that had launched Rubio to an upset Senate victory in 2010. Overnight, his support among conservatives collapsed and hasn’t recovered. At this year’s CPAC straw poll on March 6, he finished a distant sixth.
Rubio’s response to this setback has been to regroup and try a different approach. As the media’s infatuation moved on to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, he began the painstaking work of trying to recast himself as a policy wonk. On March 10 he appeared at Google’s (GOOG) offices in Washington, D.C., to deliver an address loftily titled “Sparking Dynamic Growth in 21st Century America.” “The world around us is changing quickly, and we have waited for far too long to change with it,” Rubio told the audience. “We still have time to build the new American Century. But we do not have forever.”
What distinguished his speech from politicians’ standard paeans to American entrepreneurialism was the specificity of his prescriptions: auctioning off 200 megahertz of government wireless spectrum to corporations; constructing an interstate energy pipeline system; promoting cooperation between the private sector and NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense to commercialize public research; thwarting United Nations efforts to regulate the Internet through legislation he’ll soon introduce. “Do I think Republicans have done enough [to promote economic growth]?” he said in an interview afterward. “No. I think we’re lagging—except in comparison to Democrats.”
The Google speech was the latest in a series of sober, policy-themed events that Rubio’s staff has orchestrated to burnish his image and broaden the public’s perception of him. In January, to mark the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, he delivered a speech in which he proposed consolidating dozens of federal antipoverty programs within a single agency that would disburse money to states. Liberals point out that this is a shopworn conservative approach to almost any federal program. But Rubio has also talked up cutting-edge policies such as federal wage subsidies for the working poor and is working with conservative scholars including Michael Strain at the American Enterprise Institute to write legislation.
Last month, Rubio rolled out a series of higher-education reforms aimed at broadening access and limiting costs. These include accreditation for free online college courses and other nontraditional forms of learning, as well as a proposal that would allow private investors to pay students’ tuition in exchange for a portion of their future income.
And like presidents do when they encounter trouble at home, Rubio has looked overseas to revive his fortunes. In December he traveled to London to deliver a speech on American leadership and the future of the transatlantic alliance at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank. In January he met with foreign leaders in Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. He’s emerged as an ardent foreign policy hawk, offering a conspicuous counterpoint to Paul and President Obama. He’s become a fount of policy proposals with a plan, or at least a promise of one, for just about everything.
Rubio’s transformation from rock star to professor is a work in progress. At Google he promoted a tax reform proposal that he’s working on with fellow Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah. But afterward he couldn’t say how his plan would differ from the one offered by Republican House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a bill three years in the making that has been intensely scrutinized by everyone in Washington from the moment it was unveiled on Feb. 26. “I haven’t read it,” Rubio said, which, if true, is an egregious betrayal of wonk cred.
A bigger impediment to his resurrection may be the lingering sting of immigration reform. Although Google is a vocal proponent of opening the borders to skilled foreign workers and has championed their economic contributions, Rubio made no mention of the subject in his speech. Still, there was no escaping it. In the question-and-answer session that followed, a reporter from a right-wing news service confronted him with a question about whether granting citizenship to “illegal aliens” would inhibit economic growth, and Fox News (FOXA) raised the issue, too. Rubio reiterated the need for reform. But afterward, he seemed slightly exasperated by his inability to get beyond immigration. “The point of the speech was to introduce new ideas,” he said. Politico headlined its story about the speech, “Rubio Talks Immigration at Google.”
This is the predicament Rubio must overcome to make a competitive run at the Republican nomination. “I’ll decide by this point next year,” he says. Until then, he’ll keep grinding out legislation and talking up spectrum reform and the like. As presidential strategies go, this is the opposite of campaigning through dramatic stunts, such as Cruz’s 21-hour speech protesting federal funding for Obamacare. It’s a self-conscious nod to the old notion that ideas, expertise, and experience are prerequisites for the White House—and a bet that, despite today’s poll numbers and headlines, voters will eventually come to agree.