Scoring points for 2016.

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Marco Rubio Can't Lose by Opposing Cuba Shift

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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An  argument is raging over whether leading the opposition to President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy is good electoral politics for Senator Marco Rubio. Dan Larison and Michael Tomasky have argued that the Florida Republican, who is Cuban-American, isn’t helping himself by taking a strong pro-embargo, anti-normalization stance; Greg Sargent and View’s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin argue that Obama’s decision to change policy is a “gift” to Rubio. It’s a good discussion to have, because it helps understand how policy issues play out in elections.

Larison focuses on general-election effects, especially if Rubio winds up seeking re-election in 2016, and notes that Cuba normalization polls well. That may be true. But just because a policy polls well doesn’t mean it will help candidates who support it. For one thing, most people don’t really care much about most policy issues, even though they’ll answer survey questions. For another, it’s likely that the issue will have died down by fall 2016, even in Florida, and most voters won’t even remember what Rubio did.

Of course, some people, especially in Florida, do care a lot about Cuba policy. It seems very likely, however, that intensity is on the side of continuing the embargo. What’s more, like all Republican senators, Rubio has to care about the possibility of a Tea Party primary challenge. Even leaving aside Florida politics, that makes Rubio's anti-normalization stance the right way to go; any hint of ageeement with Obama could invite such a challenge.

What about Rubio’s presidential campaign? As Sargent says, this is an easy one: the safest place in a Republican nomination battle is always on the side of those who oppose the Democratic president. And Cuba is a real opportunity for Rubio. Given the large field of more or less interchangeable candidates, it gives him a chance to demonstrate his political skills to party actors who are looking to differentiate among Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Pence, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and perhaps a few others -- all of whom are mainstream conservatives with conventional credentials.

It’s hard for anyone to stand out in that group. But because Rubio is Cuban-American, and because he will be be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs in January, he is perfectly placed to generate publicity on this issue. And if he’s perceived to have done well, it will be an excellent advertisement for his candidacy, particularly for attentive Republican elites, but also, as Greg points out, in the broader “Conservative Entertainment Complex.” 

And in the event that Rubio wins the Republican presidential nomination? It's probable that the issue will have faded from the headlines, and it would be a voting issue for very few people in any case.

It doesn’t matter whether Obama’s policy is popular. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s successful. Strong opposition is almost certainly the right electoral play for Rubio.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

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Max Berley at