Marco Rubio wants his identity back

Matt Bai
·National Political Columnist

“Someone stole my credit card,” Marco Rubio said when I entered his office last week. He was standing behind his desk, resting an iPad on one hand and peering at the screen intently, as if it might at any moment reveal the origin of Stonehenge. He glanced up and apologized for keeping me waiting.

“I got a fraud alert, and I keep hitting this button, but it’s not going through,” he said. He squinted a little harder at the screen. “What is that?” He sounded out a name that sounded like “Mahjong,” or at least that’s how I remembered it later. “Is that a store?”

Writers are always searching for apt metaphors, but in Rubio’s case you could do a lot worse than to start the discussion with a case of stolen identity. Almost as soon as he walked into the Senate four years ago, at the age of 39, Rubio was regarded as a future president, or at least a top-tier contender. Republicans talked about him — a lot — as the harbinger of a movement in their party toward youth, diversity, and swing-state appeal, all without sacrificing the ideological purity that motivated their base. Rubio seemed to solve a lot of problems all at once.

As Rubio prepares to announce his presidential campaign on April 13, each aspect of his political persona seems to have been pirated by a better-known rival. He can’t by a long shot claim to be the tea party’s standard-bearer in the field (that’s probably Ted Cruz, or maybe Rand Paul); or the only Latino (Cruz is Cuban-American, too); or the freshest face (Scott Walker is newer on the national scene and only a little older); or the guy who locks down Florida (Jeb Bush does that).

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., arrives to speak during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 27, 2015. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Until recently, it wasn’t clear that Rubio, facing a series of difficult calculations about his future, would even enter the presidential fray. (It means he can’t defend his Senate seat and stands a pretty good chance of ending up back at a law firm.) In national and primary-state polls, which are pretty much useless at this stage of a campaign except to tell you how much work a candidate will have to do to get a serious hearing, Republican voters routinely relegate Rubio to single digits — well behind Bush, Walker, Paul and Ben Carson, and in most polls trailing Chris Christie, too.

Rubio does his damnedest to seem blasé about this shrunken stature, although you have to imagine there are moments when he wishes he could hit a button on his iPad and report all of these guys for swiping his mojo.

“I used to tell people all the time, ‘Today it’s me, and tomorrow it’ll be someone else,’” he told me with a shrug. “That’s just the nature of how politics is covered. In many ways, it resembles sports coverage. Everyone wants to know who’s winning and who’s ahead.”

Rubio speaks remarkably fast and in long, eloquent bursts, with a formality that’s surprising in a young politician. Interviewing him, as I’ve done a few times now , can sometimes feel more like visiting an interactive exhibit than like an actual conversation.

If I had all the money in Walker’s secret campaign stash, I’d bet a lot of it right now that Rubio’s biggest moment in national politics is still ahead of him.

Touch the screen where it says “economic policy,” and Rubio expounds in fully formed paragraphs on the transition from agrarianism to industrialism at the dawn of the last century. Hit “foreign policy,” and he speeds through the complexity of challenges in El Salvador, Guatemala, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Israel, China and the “post-Soviet European order” without seeming to take a breath.

At one point, during a highly articulate riff on higher education, Rubio referred to “the problem I’m discussing with you today,” which made me wonder if he had lapsed into a speech.

And yet all of this hints at what may be Rubio’s remaining competitive advantage in the Republican field: He’s serious about governing. While other potential candidates (aside from Bush, perhaps) have been positioning themselves tactically, Rubio has spent the last year schooling himself and thinking deeply about what he wants to say as a candidate, which is probably the most undervalued aspect of the modern, data-driven campaign.

Rubio is right, of course, that everyone gets a moment. (Four years ago, you might recall, someone named Michele Bachmann was briefly the one to beat in the Republican field.) And if I had all the money in Walker’s secret campaign stash, I’d bet a lot of it right now that Rubio’s biggest moment in national politics is still ahead of him. The question is whether this time he can make it last.

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Presidential fields are often shaped by the tumultuous election years that precede them. George W. Bush would never have been his party’s presumed nominee in 2000, or even a candidate, were it not for the anti-Clinton wave of 1994, which swept him into the Texas Statehouse against the longest of odds. (That same wave wasn’t quite powerful enough to carry Jeb Bush to victory in Florida; had he been elected then, rather than four years later, it’s possible we’d be recalling his presidency and not his brother’s.)

If Hillary Clinton cruises unopposed for the Democratic nomination, or close to it, next year, it’ll be principally because the wave of elections of 2010 and 2014 wiped out the next generation of Democrats or prevented them from ever emerging. Like Richard Nixon in 1968, she returns from seclusion to fill a vacuum that wouldn’t exist had her party managed to avoid a political Gettysburg.

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Sen. Marco Rubio greets people during his “Reclaim America Victory Celebration” at the Biltmore Hotel on Nov. 2, 2010, in Coral Gables, Fla. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)

So it is with the nascent Republican field, too. Four years ago, the party managed to muster a single candidate who was acceptable both to its establishment and to some reasonable percentage of its voters. Heading into 2016, though, Republicans are at last reaping the rewards of the tea party insurgency on the presidential level. No fewer than five plausible Republican candidates were first elected to statehouses or the Senate after the uprising that began in the summer of 2009.

Rubio was easily the most watched of the tea-party-backed senators who arrived in 2010 after banishing better-financed and better-known primary opponents. (Cruz came to Washington two years later on the same anti-incumbent wave.) From the start, though, Rubio sought a different path.

Paul and Cruz were political neophytes who saw it as their principal mission to get in the way of government. Paul held true to his libertarian creed while trying to broaden his appeal by talking about things like racial inclusivity and prison reform — a balancing act that has at times made him seem erratic, but that has transformed him into a legitimate threat for the nomination. Cruz basically blew off his caucus in the Senate and decided to wield his influence, instead, with the radicalized tea party faction down the hall, in the House chamber.

Rubio, on the other hand, had already been speaker of the Florida House when he beat the sitting governor, Charlie Crist, in the 2010 Senate primary. He caught and exploited the wave, but his political instincts ran closer to traditional conservatism than to the new, antigovernment fervor that fueled it.

When I suggested to him, during our conversation last week, that the new conservatives in Congress opposed any federal intervention, period, in areas like education or job creation, Rubio shook his head several times. “That’s an anarchist position,” he said. He went on to list the various ways — airline regulation, control of prescription drugs, Pell Grants for college students — through which government improves people’s lives.

“No one is arguing that we’re going to un-commit what we spend to help people get educated,” Rubio said, although I was pretty sure some people were.

From the start, Rubio sought to acclimate himself to the governing culture of the Senate. Most notably, in the riskiest calculation of his young senatorial career, he took a lead role in crafting compromise legislation to reform the immigration system, which irate conservatives in the House managed to kill. That episode pretty much guaranteed that he wouldn’t have an easy time running for president in Iowa or South Carolina.

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Republican Marco Rubio meets with supporters during a campaign event on April 27, 2010, in West Miami, Fla. (Photo: Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty)

Still, as recently as last summer, Rubio remained in an enviable position. True, he wasn’t really considered a top-tier candidate anymore. But he was young and Latino and dynamic in a party that sometimes seemed hell-bent on alienating every voter who wasn’t white or over 50, and for that reason it was inconceivable that any nominee would make a short list for potential running mates that didn’t include him near the top.

As one Republican strategist put it when we talked recently, more seriously than not, there was hardly any question that Rubio would appear on the 2016 ticket. The only unknown was in which spot.

Except then Jeb Bush jumped into the field, and Rubio’s situation became not only personally awkward, but considerably more complicated. The problem, if you’re Rubio, isn’t just that Bush, were he to become the nominee, would be hard pressed to pick his old friend and protégé as a running mate; it’s that he can’t. You may recall from civics class that, constitutionally speaking, it’s prohibited for a party to nominate a president and vice president from the same state.

For Rubio, the practical choice is to run now or accept that you may never run at all.

George W. Bush got around this in 2000 by having Dick Cheney change his voter registration from Texas to Wyoming, which was really his home state anyway. But a senator can’t just quietly decide he lives in another state from the one he represents.

Rubio would never say that any of this affects his calculus for 2016, but you can imagine how it shapes up from his perspective. Absent Bush, you might decide to sit out 2016 and set yourself up either for the vice presidency or for a later run, especially if you think the party’s activists are going to nominate someone who will crash the party into a brick wall in November.

With Bush in the race, however, there’s a better than decent chance that you’re disqualified from running on the ticket, and then you might have to stand by while he wins and occupies the White House for as many as eight years, by which time you’re just another career senator, or out of public life altogether. In other words: For Rubio, the practical choice is to run now or accept that you may never run at all.

I asked him, of course, if he might find it awkward to run against the man whose support helped make him a senator. He told me, of course, that he would not.

“I wouldn’t call it awkward,” Rubio said. “I think neither of us went into this, exploring this, thinking that the other one owed us some deference. This is the presidency of the United States. This is not a county commissioner race somewhere. I’ve never sensed that. You’d have to ask him.”

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Marco Rubio greets Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on his way to being sworn in as speaker of the Florida House on Nov. 21, 2006, in Tallahassee, Fla. (Photo: Steve Cannon/AP)

The campaign Rubio is contemplating will be explicitly generational in its argument. His driving theme is that American government is failing to adapt to the new reality of globalization and digital life not because we can’t compete, but because an older generation of leaders keeps trotting out the last century’s policies and institutions to deal with it.

When it comes to higher education or the tax code or immigration or net neutrality, Rubio, who would be the first nominee in either party born after 1970, sees an aging political class that continually reaches back for outdated answers, rather than modernizing the system.

“ I think neither of us went into this, exploring this, thinking that the other one owed us some deference,” Rubio says of Jeb Bush. “This is the presidency of the United States. This is not a county commissioner race somewhere. ”

Obama, of course, echoed some of this same theme in 2008, in his less confrontational way. But Rubio argues that while Obama “understood the broad parameters” of that transformation, his only solution has been to propose more government programs of the kind that worked in decades past.

So for instance, on higher education, Rubio has proposed that the federal government transform the entire system away from traditional four-year, liberal arts degrees, at least for a lot of Americans, and toward a skills-based type of accreditation tailored to emerging, high-tech jobs. A Rubio administration would set aside a certain number of government jobs for those with nontraditional degrees, to establish a new standard for the private sector. And Rubio wants to divert some federal subsidies for college tuition away from traditional colleges.

Rubio’s generational case sounds persuasive to me on the merits (unsurprisingly, since I’ve written on similar themes many times), but I reminded him that Bush also talks quite a bit about embracing technology and reforming government and education. Why not just step aside and get behind his longtime friend’s candidacy?

“I believe that the Republican Party has an opportunity in 2016 to do something it hasn’t been able to do in a long time, and that is make the argument that we’re the party of the future, that we are the party that understands the 21st century and understands what it’s going to take to make America great in the 21st century,” he replied. “And I believe that if I run for president I have a unique contribution to make to that debate.”

In other words, I said, Bush was too old.

“Well, I don’t think you need to be the same age that I am in order to make that argument,” Rubio demurred. “But again, as I look at the others that are out there, I think there are others who are hinting at what I’m discussing, but I feel very comfortable with the fact that we’ve developed it to a level that no one else has, at least to this point.”

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Republican U.S. senator and possible presidential candidate for 2016 Marco Rubio is greeted by audience members before speaking in Hollis, N.H., on Feb. 23, 2015. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters

It should be pointed out that this kind of generational appeal has never really had much resonance in Republican politics. This is the party, after all, that tries to rename everything with a molecular structure for the oldest president in American history, and that for most of the last half century has almost reflexively nominated the next eminence in line for the throne. Neither of the party’s two nominees born after World War II, George W. Bush and Romney, struck anyone as a symbol of generational departure.

“ I believe that the Republican party has an opportunity in 2016 to do something it hasn’t been able to do in a long time, and that is make the argument that we’re the party of the future. ” – Marco Rubio

But that’s partly because Republicans have never had much chance in a debate about modernity, anyway; for most of the last half century, Democrats have run the younger, more culturally connected candidate. The 2016 campaign is shaping up to be quite different.

This time, Democrats seem poised to rally around the oldest nominee (near as I can tell, anyway) in the almost 200-year history of the party. The animating question in the run-up to next year’s primaries, more than anything having to do with common core or Iran, will almost certainly revolve around who has the best chance of stopping a second Clinton presidency and who can draw the most persuasive contrast.

And if that’s the case, then Marco Rubio would seem to be in as good a position as anyone leading the Republican pack at the moment. Sure, Bush has the governing gravitas to go up against Hillary. Paul has the passion and clarity to debate her. Walker has youth, and Cruz has demography, and Christie has national standing.

But only Rubio, the forgotten man, combines them all.