Can Marco Rubio Build A Rainbow On The Right?

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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Senator Marco Rubio didn’t purposely time his entry into the presidential race to occur one day after Hillary Clinton’s. But Rubio should embrace the opportunity to contrast his youthful optimism and intellectual energy with, well, whatever it is that Hillary has to offer.

Rubio, at 43, is the same age that John F. Kennedy was when he became president. When Kennedy succeeded Dwight D. Eisenhower, it was perceived as a great generational passing of the torch. The age gap between Rubio and Clinton is almost as wide as that between Kennedy and Eisenhower. Hillary is literally old enough to be Rubio’s mother, just as the second most prominent Democrat reportedly considering a 2016 run, Joe Biden, is old enough to be his father. These leading Democrats would appear to represent, to paraphrase Hillary’s husband, a bridge to the 20th Century.

Rubio could arguably be, in ways that go beyond the coincidence of his current age, a Republican John F. Kennedy: a Kennedy reincarnated, if you will, as the son of working class Latino immigrants. Rubio has a Kennedyesque talent for projecting idealism — and not the woolly-headed brand that prevents many self-perceived idealists from grasping the threats America faces around the world. Kennedy, unlike those who would come to dominate his party in the years after his death, was an unapologetic Cold Warrior. (Through the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course, Kennedy will forever be linked to the island of Rubio’s roots.) Rubio approaches the international challenges of our day — Islamist extremism, the resurgence of Russian expansionism, the rise of China, nuclear proliferation — with the same realism and moral clarity with which Kennedy confronted communism.

Shortly after the President Obama’s reelection victory in 2012, I offered my unsolicited advice to my fellow Republicans: We need to build a “Rainbow on the Right.” That phrase, a response to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s concept of a “Rainbow Coalition,” is one that I coined years ago when I ran for Congress. It reflected my own absurdly diverse background, but more importantly my confidence that the Republican message — especially the power of free enterprise to lift people out of poverty, provide opportunity and promote upward mobility — could eventually resonate in traditionally liberal communities if we made the case properly.

Marco Rubio is one who can make the case properly. His is the type of immigrant rags-to-riches story that makes Americans feel good about themselves — and justifiably so. He communicates his story, his ideas, and his ideals with passion and with eloquence. His vibe is open and positive, which is crucial in any effort to preach to the not-yet-converted. It is no easy task to sell conservative ideals in precincts that have been conditioned to demonize conservatives. In order to have any chance of success, we will need messengers like Marco Rubio.

The stakes are high. The Republican Party may have proved, for now, that it can win low-turnout mid-terms by opposing an unpopular president. But the GOP has yet to prove that it can still win high-turnout presidential elections — indeed, it has lost the popular vote in five of the last six. And the Republican mid-term victory in 2014 cannot come close to undoing the damage caused by our failure to recapture the presidency in 2012.

President Obama’s second term has been uniquely destructive on both the domestic and international fronts. Obamacare has been a disaster, but it becomes more entrenched with each passing day. Obama’s advisors have privately likened the pending Iran nuclear deal to Obamacare — and they’re right, but not for the reasons they’d like to believe: The deal may do as much damage to American interests abroad as Obamacare will do to America’s health care system and economy. Perhaps on the bright side, the nuclear framework deal that the president triumphantly announced recently may not be a deal at all.

The recent nuclear talks were like a remake of “Rashomon,” the classic Japanese film in which the various characters asserted different, mutually irreconcilable versions of the same incident. Obama assures us that Iran’s compliance with the deal will be enforced through “snap-back sanctions,” which appear to be the foreign policy equivalent of “shovel-ready jobs.” But even on that most fundamental issue of sanctions, the Iranians hotly dispute the White House description of the framework. The parties can’t seem to agree on what they’ve agreed on.

But whatever deal the Obama administration ultimately capitulates to, it will almost certainly enable Iran to go nuclear in the foreseeable future. And President Hillary Clinton would enshrine that deal, just as she would enshrine Obamacare. It is vitally important that the Republicans nominate someone who can defeat Hillary Clinton.

Marco Rubio presents one of the most favorable matchups against Hillary Clinton that the Republicans can offer, and not just because of the generational contrast. Much has been made, of course, of the fact that Rubio is Hispanic. It is simplistic to believe that Republicans can win the increasingly important Hispanic vote simply by nominating Rubio, especially since the Cuban-American experience is seen my many other Latinos as different from their own. But with Rubio, it’s not so much who he is as how he presents himself. He communicates American values and aspirations in an inspirational way that can resonate with all immigrant communities — including Hispanics — and with the majority of other Americans who celebrate that we’re a nation of immigrants. Rubio cannot singlehandedly overturn entrenched voting patterns overnight, but he will make inroads — in some cases very significant ones — with ethnic and demographic constituencies that currently vote blue. And that could decide the next presidential election.

In 2008, many Americans looked forward to the chance to make history by electing the first woman president. They ultimately passed up on that chance, but only because they had the chance to elect the first African-American president. In 2016, will Americans again pass on electing the first woman president if the Republicans don’t offer a similar history-making option, such as the chance to elect the first Latino president?

I’m aware that many of my fellow Republicans will find the foregoing analysis distasteful. We’re not comfortable with identity politics, and that’s to our credit. But there’s a difference between voting out of identity loyalty — e.g. voting for candidates because they’re the same gender as you — and voting to affirm what you want to believe about your country — e.g. that any American child, from whatever background, can grow up to be President of the United States. I believe that in 2008, many voters who didn’t have a strong ideological preference voted for Obama for the chance to make history.

In 2016, it is likely that Democrats will again offer Americans the chance to make history, and many will find that offer tempting. Ideally, Republicans will counter with a history-making opportunity of their own. It is likely that the desire to elect the first woman president is more widespread across America than the desire to elect the first Latino president, but that is not dispositive. Republicans do not need to completely cancel out Hillary’s gender-based emotional appeal in order to win, but it would behoove them to blunt it with an emotional appeal of their own.

In the long run, Republicans will have to steadily build a “Rainbow on the Right” in order to remain consistently competitive in presidential politics. And for 2016, the GOP may well face the choice of making history or slipping back into it.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.