There may be something slightly unseemly about talking about the 2016 election the day after Election Day 2012, but in contemporary American politics one election begins the moment after the previous one is concluded. While the defeat of Mitt Romney concludes the political career of a man who will probably be seen as a transitional figure, it does open up a new era for Republicans in which a new and younger generation will begin to compete for the leadership of their party. As has been frequently mentioned in the last few months, while the choices presented to GOP voters in the 2012 primaries seemed a rather uninspiring lot, the party’s bench is pretty deep. Though there are a few obvious names among those who will automatically be placed in consideration for the next presidential go-round, based on yesterday’s dismal returns, one star is shining a bit brighter than the others today: Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
The day after the defeat, many Republicans are rightly pondering what they can do to offset what appears to be a strong partisan advantage for Democrats in the electorate in general, but especially among Hispanic voters. I think that makes Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and a popular senator in a key state that Romney narrowly lost, a presumptive favorite for 2016 if he is inclined to run for president. Though Rubio can’t solve all of his party’s problems, a consensus about the need to think outside the usual GOP box could give him an edge over other obvious possibilities, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, and a host of lesser known options.
It should be remembered that Rubio’s star turn at the Republican National Convention outshone the speeches of both Ryan and keynoter Christie. The former’s presentation was smart and heartfelt. But it was a bit pedestrian and turned out to be a foretaste of what would be a creditable but ultimately lackluster couple of months in the national spotlight for Ryan. He may still be the intellectual leader of his party, but he isn’t the dynamic figure many of his admirers thought he would prove to be before he was chosen. Christie’s convention speech was brilliant but was also, characteristically, all about himself rather than Romney or his party. Christie articulated a coherent theme for Republican governance that deserved applause. But like his fulsome praise for President Obama during Hurricane Sandy, fairly or unfairly, it will be chiefly remembered as a slight to his party’s standard-bearer. Of the trio, only Rubio emerges from this election cycle with his 2016 appeal untarnished.
Of course, there’s no way of knowing who will be on the party’s radar screen at the start of 2015 when the presidential merry-go-round truly begins. There are other young party stars that will deserve a look. Among them, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has attained the status of a folk hero among party activists. There are also holdovers from past cycles such as Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and even Sarah Palin, who may still harbor presidential ambitions even if their chances of winning may not come close to matching their celebrity quotients. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will also be a factor in 2016 if he runs, since he has the capacity to expand upon his father Ron’s base of libertarian extremists even if he is still very much outside the GOP consensus on foreign policy issues.
Rubio’s greatest strengths are his personal charisma (a factor that was sorely lacking among the Republican candidates in 2012) and an ability to appeal to both Tea Partiers and mainstream Republicans. His Hispanic identity won’t eliminate the GOP’s problems there, as many Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans aren’t going to think of a Cuban with the warmth they would reserve for a member of their own group. But anyone who thinks it wouldn’t make it harder for Democrats to retain the loyalty of Hispanics is mistaken.
Rubio’s main weakness is the fact that the country still doesn’t know him that well, and though he has become a regular on cable news shows, he is untested on the national political stage. His apparent reluctance to be considered for the vice presidential nomination did feed rumors of his having some sort of skeleton in his closet. That’s highly unlikely, and his decision (if it was his decision, rather than that of Romney) may have been born out of sensible reluctance to move up after only two years in the Senate. That could also be an obstacle in 2016, since running for president would obligate Rubio to give up his seat after only one term, something that will generate unflattering and unfair comparisons to John Edwards.
The only known problem in his background is that although he was born in the United States and is therefore a native born citizen, the fact that his parents were not yet naturalized will generate a new crackpot “birther” controversy in the fever swamps of the right. But that is not something that will hurt him with 99.9 percent of the electorate.
We’ve a long way to go before 2015, and it’s possible that Ryan’s leadership on fiscal issues will catapult him back to the top of the class. A successful re-election campaign in New Jersey in 2014 for Christie will energize his many fans as well as generate coverage that the other hopefuls may not get that year. But as of this moment, I’d rate Rubio as being at the top of the GOP’s class of 2016.