Why Rubio is a frontrunner

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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There is obviously a lot of time between now and the next presidential election, and many will surely say it is premature to even talk about it. But with Sen. Marco Rubio going to Iowa — and Gov. Bobby Jindal speaking out on the future of the GOP — the campaign seems to have unofficially begun.

Pundits, of course, are also pouncing. Race for 2016 is already up with some arguments against Rubio — and they aren’t alone. But while the concerns are legitimate to raise, they are hardly disqualifying.

A predictable argument against Rubio will be that he is too young and inexperienced. But Mitt Romney’s only elected experienced was as a one-term governor, so surely serving as Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives — as well as a United States Senator for six years — should be acceptable. Rubio has clearly passed the threshold of experience needed to be president.

Of course, citing the fact that Obama had even less experience will get Rubio nowhere. But the truth about Obama is that he would very likely have never become president had he spent a decade or two in the U.S. senate — taking too many controversial votes — and becoming an establishment creature of Washington.

Should he run in 2016, Rubio would have more DC experience than Obama, but probably not so much as to turn him into a Bob Dole, John McCain, or a John Kerry.

Still, in a post-Obama world, the experience question will be raised by some fellow Republicans. For example, Jindal has a richer resume. But Jindal hasn’t proven himself to be a terrific or inspiring communicator. And that’s vitally important.

You know you’re in trouble when you hear someone say: “We don’t need a young and exciting candidate who is charismatic. We had enough of that last time!”

Wrong. A candidate who is too charismatic is like a girl that is too pretty — something that doesn’t exist (not in the modern media age, at least).

Reagan was a star. Bill Clinton was Elvis. George Bush had that damn Texas swagger. And (as much as conservatives hate to admit it), there’s something about Barry that earned him the reputation as “the biggest celebrity in the world.”

Rubio has more star power than any of the likely GOP candidates, and — like it, or not — that matters. Rubio helps fix the problem with young voters. He helps fix the problem with college-educated voters. He would be equally as successful on “Meet the Press” as on MTV or “The View.”

The next thing you’ll hear is that Republicans only want him because he’s Hispanic — but his Cuban background will do him no good.

Rubio’s ethnicity should be thought of as merely icing on an otherwise terrific cake. He comes from an incredibly important swing state. And he is eloquent and articulate and inspiring. He frames free enterprise, not as a “haves versus have nots” paradigm, but as a way to help everyone achieve the American Dream.

I’ve long advocated Thatcher’s maxim that “first you win the argument, then you win the vote.” Mitt Romney surely couldn’t win the argument. And though George W. Bush won elections and votes, he skipped winning the argument (a fatal conceit.) The best conservatives, like Ronald Reagan, can teach and persuade the American public to follow them. Rubio has this gift.

Now the Hispanic thing. The argument that Rubio’s Cuban background does not automatically guarantee Hispanic support is, of course, correct. I wrote about this years ago when I interviewed Carlos Eire, a Yale professor and author of “Learning to Die in Miami,

“Marco Rubio is a white guy, and the Mexicans and Central Americans who love to think of themselves as ‘brown’ or as a separate race (La Raza), are not going to gravitate to Rubio just because his parents spoke Spanish at home,” Eire told me.

“There are serious reasons for those 17 different countries south of the border [retaining] their separate identities and autonomy,” he said, adding: “I don’t know a single ‘Hispanic’ who thinks of himself or herself as anything other than someone from a specific country: Peru, Guatemala, Argentina, Colombia…”

If the goal is to attract the most Hispanics based solely on the candidate’s race, and play “identity politics,” then a Mexican-American candidate would be a much better bet. But I don’t think that’s the goal — nor should it be.

(In my estimation, the most serious problem Rubio has to overcome is explaining his close friendship with the ethically-challenged former Rep. David Rivera. Were I advising the senator, this is the one area that would cause me the most concern. He will have to navigate this carefully.)

Ultimately, it comes down to vision. Yes, Rubio is fluent in Spanish — and that’s important inasmuch as it would make it easier for him to effectively communicate his message to a larger audience.

But it is the message that matters, and here, Rubio’s has a compelling argument for a nation of immigrants — for all of us: America is the last bastion of hope, and we can all achieve the American Dream — if we preserve the freedom that makes that all possible…

Matt K. Lewis