D. Dowd Muska


A Dispassionate Look at Marco the Great

June 28, 2012

No member of the Congressional Class of 2010 enjoys the right’s adulation more than Senator Marco Rubio.

The Florida Republican, a lawyer and former state legislator, won a slot in the “world’s greatest deliberative body” before turning 40. Handsome, jovial, social-media savvy, a son of immigrants, and a superlative money-raiser, the married father of four is a political consultant’s dream.

The GOP establishment, desperate to appeal to tens of millions of Latino voters, knows what it has in Rubio. The Sunshine State’s junior senator is on Mitt Romney’s short list of picks for vice president. Even if someone else gets the nod, Marco Mania isn’t going anywhere. Barring illness or an Anthony Weiner-style self-destruction, Rubio will be a force in conservatism and Republican politics for decades.

The Rise of Marco Rubio (Simon & Schuster; 291 pages; $25), by Manuel Roig-Franzia, digs deep into the past, and illuminates many dead zones for readers who know the politician only as a national figure. A reporter for The Washington Post who has “written extensively about the American South, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean,” the author is well-equipped to weave together Cuba’s troubled history, the intricacies of Florida politics, and the heterogeneous culture of Latino America.

Roig-Franzia’s book offers a refreshing antidote to Rubio’s frequent Fox News Channel appearances and relentless tweets. The reporter evenhandedly depicts a politician who fused natural ability, unbridled enthusiasm, luck, and timing with a propensity to abandon ideological consistency.

In his first statehouse race, Rubio parroted teacher-union talking points on universal preschool: “You do the most important learning the first five years of your life, but we don’t even start school until age 6. We can’t wait for the school years to intellectually challenge children. … I think the most effective use of our money comes from investing in the front end.” During his remarkably speedy ascent to the speakership of the Florida House of Representatives, Rubio avoided discussions of abortion, forged a key alliance with a prominent Democrat, backed a stadium subsidy for the Florida Marlins, and “made heavy use of earmarks,” including “money to design the restoration of an historic home and to build a park picnic shelter.” (When the potential political consequences of his pork-feasting became apparent, Rubio’s earmark requests “stopped cold.”)

The opportunism that marked Rubio’s Tallahassee tenure continues in D.C. Like Scott Brown, another young lawyer who beat long odds in a successful bid for the Senate, Rubio was content to let tea-party activists believe he was their guy. Once in office, neither senator joined the Tea Party Caucus, and both regularly cast votes that offend limited-government activists.

Case in point: Subsidies for employers back home. Although it came too late for Roig-Franzia’s biography, the Senate’s recent gift to the nation’s sheltered sugar industry confirmed that Rubio remains willing to toss expenditure restraint and sound economics aside if reelection’s on the line. As The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page noted, in 2010, he ran “as a tea party favorite in opposition to the crony capitalism and government meddling of the Obama Administration.” But when dozens of Republicans and Democrats, in a rare display of beneficial bipartisanship, found common ground on a corporate-welfare program long overdue for elimination, Rubio wasn’t on board. First he voted against an amendment to kill the sugar program, then against an amendment to reform it.

“National security” isn’t an issue commonly handled by state lawmakers, but once in Washington, Rubio looked abroad. He “positioned himself as a defender of the Cuban embargo, a cold war-era holdover that had failed for half a century to topple the Castro regime,” Roig-Franzia writes, and “castigated diplomats who weren’t deemed sufficiently confrontational with the Cuban government.”

A soft spot for Cuba can be understood, given Rubio’s heritage. Far less forgivable is his embrace of neoconservatism’s kooky schemes to enforce a global Pax Americana, no matter what the cost. Rubio, who has no military background, has mind-melded with his chamber’s most unhinged warmongers, including Joe Lieberman and John McCain. Connecticut’s senior senator is leaving office at the end of the year, and libertarian foreign-affairs writer Justin Raimondo warns that “Rubio looks to be an energetic stand-in for Lieberman, who never fails to mobilize every cliché at hand to defend America’s role as the world’s policeman.”

Fiscal firebrand? Bold apologist of free enterprise? Thoughtful defender of the nation’s interests? The Rise of Marco Rubio suggests that the GOP wunderkind promises to be more Richard Lugar than Rand Paul. Time -- and tea-party pressure -- will tell.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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