The year 2013 was not a good one for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions. As I noted in January, it was annus horribillis for Rubio as he went from being seen as the perfect prototype of the Republican of the future to being scorned as a RINO by many of his former Tea Party supporters for his efforts on behalf of immigration reform and being overshadowed on security issues by the rise of Rand Paul and the isolationist wing of his party. But Rubio make a strong start in 2014 with an eloquent address at the Capitol on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty that rightly sought to lead the GOP toward a new approach to the welfare state that sought to make the Republicans once again the party of ideas. But Rubio’s greatest strength has always been foreign policy. With the Russian seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine refocusing the public of the vital importance of America’s standing in the world, Rubio seems to have not only rediscovered the confidence that he seemed to lack at times last year but reminded a lot of Republicans of the reasons he was on everyone’s short list for president at the start of 2013.
While there’s no telling whether the senator will run in 2016 or if he can succeed if he does, Rubio’s speech to the CPAC Conference today in Washington showcased the senator’s strengths. In a speech that including many of his traditional stump remarks about his immigrant parents and the American dream, Rubio made the best case against the sort of retreat from engagement with the world that Rand Paul has championed that conservatives have heard in a long time. In a political atmosphere in which the sole foreign policy concerns of Republicans was the Obama administration’s violations of civil liberties and trashing of the Constitution it was possible for Paul to dominate the GOP. But now that Russia’s aggression has put foreign policy back on the front burner with most Republicans agreeing that the trouble is due to President Obama’s weak leadership and lack of faith in American principles, Rubio seems to be back as well.
It’s likely that many on the right will never forgive Rubio for his support of a bipartisan compromise immigration bill last year. Though the bill passed the Senate with the support of a substantial minority of Republicans, it was dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House and Rubio bore the brunt of much of the resentment of the party’s grass roots activists for backing a bill that granted a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal aliens in the country. The depth of this opposition as well as the intemperate and often biased language used by some on the right has embittered many Hispanics and created a long-term problem for Republicans. Rubio hasn’t backtracked on his support for the original bill but he understands there is no persuading his party’s base on the issue and didn’t even mention it in his speech today.
But while that conflict has permanently alienated many Tea Partiers who formed the base of his successful 2010 primary challenge to once (and perhaps future) Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the outcomes of elections are as much about the defining issues of the moment as they are about personalities. If, after years of being dominated by discussions of taxes, spending, ObamaCare and immigration, the Republican public square returns to some of its traditional focus on foreign policy, there’s no denying that Rubio’s ability to articulate a Reaganite stance on engagement with the world and defense returns him to the front rank of GOP leaders.
Speaking today about how Obama’s weakness on China, Iran and North Korea has led inevitably to disasters in Syria and Ukraine, Rubio sounded a clarion call for conservatives to stand up for a strong America by telling his audience that “only one nation can stand up to totalitarianism.”
We have a president who believes that by the sheer force of his personality he could be able to shape global events. We have a president that believes that by going around the world and giving key speeches in key places, he can shape the behavior of other nations. We do not have the luxury of seeing the world the way we hope it would be. We have to see the world the way it is.
Paul’s neo-isolationism has expanded its appeal beyond the libertarian base inherited from his father because of the cynicism about government that Obama’s extra-Constitutional behavior has bred in conservatives. But Rubio’s appeal for a foreign policy rooted in support for core American principles is one that still resonates with most Republicans. At a time when the administration is gutting defense and retreating in the face of foreign tyrants, the pendulum may be swinging back toward the pro-defense wing of the party.
To note this is not the same thing as assuming that Rubio will be moving back to the front rank of his party’s presidential contenders. But if he is interested in running in 2016, those who assume that immigration has doomed his chances forever may be wrong. If, thanks to Putin, Iran and Obama’s blunders, a strong stance on foreign affairs is again a prerequisite for winning the Republican nomination, Rubio will have a fighting chance.