Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio made it clear on ABC’s This Week that he is seriously considering running for president in 2016. That Rubio’s been thinking about the presidency isn’t a secret. After a brutal 2013 in which his presidential prospects took a precipitous decline, the chaotic nature of the GOP race and the increasing importance of foreign policy has brought him back into the limelight. But if his chances are no better—and no worse—than just about any of the other prospective 2016 candidates, what’s really fascinating about the confident manner with which he’s promoting his candidacy is that his path to the nomination runs primarily through a Republican establishment that he once challenged.
Though he started out as a Tea Party challenger to the establishment’s choice for a Florida Senate seat, Rubio’s mainstream views on foreign policy, embrace of immigration reform, as well as his tough opposition to the Obama administration on host of other domestic issues have transformed him from an outsider to one of the people who may be hoping to fill the insider slot in the 2016 primaries. With Chris Christie heavily damaged by Bridgegate, Jeb Bush still big a question mark, and other possibilities such as Governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence not certain to run, if you’re going to handicap the race this far out, Rubio has to be considered as having a reasonable chance of being the Republican who will emerge from the early primaries as the establishment’s best hope of stopping Rand Paul. Seen in that light, Rubio’s announcement of readiness is a smart move that could set in motion a train of events that will see him inheriting the mantle of the party’s hopes for 2016.
In the last 18 months, Rubio has demonstrated just how perilous it can be to be anointed as a future president. In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election Rubio was dubbed “The Republican Savior” by TIME magazine because of his youth, his Hispanic identity, and the fact that he represented a fresh face in a party that was desperately in need of a makeover. With impeccable conservative credentials on the issues and close ties to the Tea Party movement that he had championed in Florida against the quintessential GOP moderate Charlie Crist, Rubio seemed to be a computer model of what Republicans needed.
But after beginning 2013 as a punch line after his comic dive for a water bottle during his official response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, his stock quickly went downhill. The rise of Paul and Cruz illustrated that he had been eclipsed among Tea Partiers. The increasing willingness of many on the right to embrace Paul’s brand of isolationism also seemed to show that Rubio’s positions in favor of traditional GOP beliefs in a strong defense and engagement with the world against Islamist terror might no longer be popular on the right.
However, the biggest problem was Rubio’s decision to join a bipartisan coalition to solve the immigration mess. Rubio’s presence in the group forced it to accept a tough border enforcement element, but his acceptance of a path to citizenship provoked outrage on the right where anything other than support for deportation for illegals is viewed as heresy. Rubio’s immigration gambit was meant to demonstrate his leadership capabilities as well as his ability to compromise. And he was, and still is, absolutely right to assert that the real “amnesty” is what is going on now as 12 million illegals who are not going to be deported remain here but in a legal limbo. But it doomed any hope that Tea Partiers would back his candidacy and there are many on the right who will never back him because of it.
However, the failure of that bill has, perversely, helped Rubio come back in 2014. With immigration off the table for the near and perhaps even foreseeable future, the senator doesn’t have to keep arguing about an issue that many conservatives won’t budge on. With the crises in Ukraine and the collapse of the Middle East peace process as well as the ongoing debate about Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly Rubio’s tough foreign-policy stance makes him look a lot more marketable. There is a clear opening for a traditional Republican foreign-policy candidate to oppose Paul’s isolationism and marginal would-be contenders like Peter King and John Bolton won’t fill it.
The one big obstacle to Rubio’s hopes is Jeb Bush. If the son and brother of former presidents does run, he will likely snatch up all the establishment support Rubio needs, not to mention most of the senator’s own Florida backers. But if Bush doesn’t run, it’s easy to plot a scenario in which Rubio’s main competition for mainstream Republicans would be a severely compromised Christie and other less prominent Republicans who would be starting behind him in terms of fundraising. At that point, Rubio’s obvious strengths—youth, appeal to Hispanic voters, strong foreign-policy voice, fiscally conservative domestic policies, and willingness to play to the right on climate change—come back into play.
It remains to be seen whether much of the right will ever forgive him for a correct, if doomed, immigration proposal. But a year and a half before the primary fight really begins, you’d have to give him a fighting chance to be the man that establishment Republicans will look to if they want to stop a possible Rand Paul juggernaut in the spring of 2016.