Why Republicans should nominate Marco Rubio for president

Chuck Donovan Contributor
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Marco Rubio should seek the Republican nomination for president of the United States. And the GOP should oblige him and make him its choice to oppose President Obama in 2012.

The first compelling reason the Republican Party should do this is that Senator Rubio, novice Washingtonian though he is, can defeat the Democratic incumbent. The second and more compelling reason, because it explains the first, is that Rubio can defeat defeatism.

Much has been said and written about how polarized the country is these days, as if shouted questions and waved placards are new features of American politics. They are not. They are features of self-rule everywhere. Just turn on BBC America and watch the prime minister’s “Question Time” in the House of Commons. More hard jabs are thrown there in 15 minutes than in a typical month of U.S. politics.

The problem with American politics is not that it is rancorous, but that it is defeatist — on both sides of the aisle. Thanks to the alarmism that has swept across the globe for decades about everything from the climate to immigration to population growth, we have slipped into pervasive negativism. The planet is shrinking, our resources are being depleted, our debts are rising and our prospects are plummeting, the doomsayers warn. Our children will have a lower standard of living than we do.

Of all the conservatives on the public stage today, only two — Marco Rubio and perhaps Paul Ryan — are charting a path to safety. But only Rubio is offering a full vision of our possibilities.

Consider the recent debate over the debt limit. The Democrats in Congress and the White House produced no plan. Obama offered an address even the Congressional Budget Office dismissed as unserious, saying it could not “score a speech.” Republican leaders in Congress produced Rep. Paul Ryan’s long-term proposal for budget and entitlement reform as well as “Cut, Cap and Balance,” a serious proposal that did not kick spending cuts down the road to some future Congress.

Senator Rubio did not stay on the sidelines and watch this political drama unfold. He endorsed the Ryan plan, emerging, as Marc Thiessen has pointed out, as its leading defender, a move that opened him up to baseless charges that he was putting the elderly at risk — no small accusation given the high percentage of older Americans in the state he represents.

Rubio was unfazed. As Thiessen put it, noting his performance against similar charges in his Senate race, Rubio is the nation’s number one “Medi-scare survivor.”

More importantly, during the debt ceiling debate Rubio took on John Kerry and masterfully advanced an argument that reflected conservative principles while intellectually uniting strands of thought that are too often considered mutually antagonistic. In a speech on the Senate floor, Rubio said:

“We don’t need new taxes, we need new taxpayers, people who are gainfully employed, making money, paying into the tax system and then we need a government that has the discipline to take that additional revenue and use it to pay down the debt and never grow it again.”

In one compact phrase, Rubio put his finger on the manifold roots of our economic crisis. Too many people are dependent on government, too many are excused from paying income taxes and are therefore numb to the effects of increased federal spending, too few are working full-time jobs and too few young Americans are forming families and beginning to raise the taxpayers of tomorrow. It took 48 words just now to spell out the meaning of Rubio’s four-word phrase “We need new taxpayers.” Compression like his is a political gift.

Several questions come up whenever a Rubio presidential run is mentioned.

First, isn’t he a natural choice for vice president instead?

This option is attractive to Washington power brokers, but the number two spot historically has not attracted large blocs of voters.

Ferraro and Palin did not bring women voters to the Mondale and McCain tickets. Bentsen and Edwards did not help Dukakis and Kerry in the South. Muskie did not help Humphrey with white ethnics in 1968, nor did Shriver save McGovern among pro-life Catholics in 1972. Hispanic voters are very likely to view a 2012 move to Vice President Rubio as a mere gesture.

Nor is the vice presidency necessarily helpful to the individual who accepts it. It surely hurt Humphrey. Quayle never recovered from it. Even Al Gore suffered from his association with Bill Clinton.

If Rubio is a plausible vice president, he must be a plausible president from day one. It’s a dangerous world.

Second, is Rubio eligible to run for the office?

Some critics respond to any suggestion of Rubio, Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley on a national ticket with the outlandish claim that their parents had to have been naturalized citizens before these descendants of immigrants could be recognized as born in the U.S.A. A more absurd and self-defeating stance could hardly be imagined. Every president before Van Buren was born to non-U.S. citizens. To take such a position would be to alienate tens of millions of children of legal immigrants, branding the GOP as latter-day Know Nothings for generations to come — condemning it to minority status.

Third, what about Rubio’s experience? Is he not Obama Redux — a huge gamble when an older and steadier hand is needed at the helm?

Rubio’s strength is that ideology will not mar the experience he does have, which compares favorably with Obama’s and that of current GOP contenders. Most notable was his rapid rise in the Florida House of Representatives. He was chosen majority leader in a significant era of reform in a large and politically diverse state. He produced a book containing 100 ideas for improving life in Florida. Most were adopted.

Another step that would leaven any doubts about Rubio’s fitness would be the early selection of a running mate. My choice is Senator Jon Kyl. The junior senator from Arizona is 69 years old. Rubio’s experience and maturity would be powerfully demonstrated were he to ask Kyl to join him and contend in the primaries together. Kyl is the Senate’s most respected conservative. He is pro-life, pro-defense and pro-economic growth.

This ticket could usher in a solidly conservative Senate and a strengthened House majority, too. But to do so, it must be able to defeat the fear merchants (see AttackWatch.com for a first salvo) who will attempt to focus the 2012 election on distracting themes like theocracy or racial politics.

Democrats are sniffing smoke in the wind. They know that Rubio could “steal” votes in the Hispanic community. They think those votes belong to them. They are wrong to worry overmuch about this, because the real threat of Rubio is that he could take votes from a wide band of followers that Democrats take for granted, not just Hispanics.

The best evidence for this is Rubio’s climb to prominence while taking on both a moderate in his own party, Charlie Crist, and the whole of the Democratic establishment (including Bill Clinton). Democrats fear in Rubio’s rise the same things many conservatives welcome: a shibboleth-shattering candidate capable of uniting America around conservative ideas.

In the end, only Rubio himself can decide whether our nation’s dire hour justifies changing his decision to remain in the Senate. But the electorate continues to search for a leader who will steer a new course without setting his — and our — hair on fire.

Ronald Reagan had that ability. Rubio has it too, and if anything we need it even more now.

Chuck Donovan worked in the Reagan White House and is a longtime public policy analyst in Washington, D.C.