Can he win as the "Republican Obama"?

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rubio Looks Like the Future. His Party Wants the Past.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Mike Murphy does not want Marco Rubio to be the Republican nominee for president. This is unsurprising. Murphy runs the main super PAC that supports former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and has poured tens of millions -- fruitlessly, in the case of Iowa -- into advertising and political activities advancing Bush and tearing down Rubio, who after a good showing in Iowa is both the leading threat to consolidate the "mainstream" lane of the GOP primary and a former Bush protégé.

Murphy's case against Rubio,  made in a series of tweets on Thursday, portrays Rubio as a GOP disaster in a savior's guise. Here's how he sums up the evidence:

Chris Christie is also hammering on this one. The New Jersey governor has absolutely no chance of being president himself, but his bullying instincts have been aroused by Rubio's relative success with donors and voters. The obvious two-word rebuttal to this argument is: Barack Obama.

Rubio has more experience than Obama had in 2008, and things turned out pretty well for the young man from Chicago who was elected to two highly significant presidential terms. But there are two reasons to give Murphy's self-interested case a bit of credence here.

Obama's generational pitch was in tune with a young, multiracial Democratic electorate. ("We are the ones we've been waiting for" was gibberish of a sort, but it didn't sound that way to millions who felt they had waited too long for political, economic and cultural power.) By contrast, Rubio is making a generational pitch to an older, whiter GOP electorate, a key element of which is fearful of the future and desperate to relive the past. The inexperienced John F. Kennedy promised a new generation of leadership to chart a new frontier. The nature of the Republican Party requires Rubio to promise a new generation of leadership to make time run backward. It's a more complicated sales effort.

In addition, the racial component of Obama's appeal was intimately tied to the generational component. Obama was the voice for a younger, less white America. Rubio has the same attributes. But the anxieties of the GOP electorate make it much more difficult to package it. He has to be young and Cuban-American while promising that he'll hold certain aspects of the future at bay.

Ted Cruz accomplishes the goal by waging a purely retrograde campaign, foregoing any of the idealism that Rubio summons periodically. Murphy isn't worried about Cruz's campaign, which is appealing to a different segment of the party than Bush hopes (ultimately) to win over. He's worried about blunting Rubio's growth right now. He wants to deny Rubio any potential benefits of youthful idealism.

Immigration is the issue that makes Rubio visibly uncomfortable, causing his eyes to flutter and his mouth to grow tense. It's pretty clear that Rubio's shifting positions are a product of expediency. (The shorthand: He was anti-amnesty before co-authoring the Gang of Eight bill creating a pathway to citizenship before turning against his own bill to once again oppose "amnesty.") Rubio's convoluted explanations don't inspire confidence.

Rubio's trouble here comes in two parts: He supported comprehensive immigration reform when it seemed like a good idea politically. Since then, his party has grown increasingly hostile to the idea, and hard-core reform opponents are unlikely ever to trust him. In general, blatant flip-flops on core values and issues invite attacks on his "sneaky" character. (Bush has a more acute problem being crosswise with the GOP base on immigration, but he's been relatively steadfast in his support so he doesn't come off as a double-crosser.)

Rubio's great appeal is that he might lure Hispanic voters to the Republican side in the general election. But given the anti-immigrant tone of the GOP primary thus far, that would probably require Rubio to adjust his immigration position yet again for the general election. There is a limit to how many changes the political market will bear. And Rubio may already have exceeded it. Regardless of their own positions, there is essentially no downside to Rubio's opponents mentioning immigration as often as possible.

Rubio is clearly outside the general-electorate mainstream on abortion, and Democrats will no doubt spend millions on abortion-themed ads if he becomes the GOP nominee. But this isn't so clear-cut. Rubio is a skilled politician. And voters are accustommed not only to a generous amount of hypocrisy and temporizing on this issue, but to an ever-lengthening history of Republicans opposing abortion at the federal level without doing much to stop it. Arguably, Bush's history in the Terry Schiavo case, in which he forced a husband to keep his brain-dead wife alive, is a greater liability than Rubio's more easily muddled position against abortion.

This is essentially the same as Reason #1 -- Rubio's too green. Although it also pays homage to the Republican embrace of private business as the locus of civic virtue.

And we conclude with another iteration of Reason #1.

Ultimately, the label of "GOP Obama" cuts two ways. Obama was elected twice and, if you listen to Republican candidates for president, was so transformative that he single-handedly reshaped the U.S. into something akin to Zimbabwe. On the other hand, American voters tend to look for the opposite of the president they last elected -- and this is doubly so for the opposition party.

Pinning the tag "GOP Obama" on Rubio makes sense. But it's more in tune with how liberal Democrats view Obama -- insufficiently successful -- than how many Republicans view him. Then again, this being politics in a polarized age, lots of people manage to think of Obama as completely ineffective and dangerously transformational at the same time. Rubio should be so lucky.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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