By Sylvia Mishra*
Marco Rubio featured in the cover of the Time magazine in February 2013 as ‘The Republican Savior’ and the ‘new voice’ of the Republican Party. Nearly two years after being hailed as the future of the party, influential figures in both conservative and moderate wings of the GOP abandoned him during the early stages of his 2016 presidential campaign. Rubio’s embrace of immigration reform led several national conservative groups and activists including Washington lobbyist and Rubio’s longtime adviser Dirk Van Dongen to break away from his campaign and instead support Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz.
When freshman Senator Rubio from Florida launched his presidential campaign in April 2015, in spite of his rhetoric flourish, his campaign was dubbed as shoestring and ‘underdog’ for 2016. Fast forward to November 2015, mostly all national polls on 2016 Republican presidential race showcase Rubio’s upward trend. Within a span of six months, how did Rubio get both the party’s grassroots base and billionaire donors to rally support in his favour? How did Rubio transition from an underdog campaigner to become the next GOP rising star? Whilst walking the political tightrope vacillating between third or fourth position in the GOP nomination race, would Rubio be able get stronger as a candidate?
Rubio’s strategy to emerge as the GOP nominee is focused on displaying strong debate performances and substantive policy speeches while gradually working on fundraising activities. He is steadily climbing up the path to GOP nomination by keeping a low profile whilst the top brass anti-establishment candidates like billionaire Donald Trump and the soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson embroil themselves in fighting each other. In an interview with CBS ‘Face the Nation’, he stated that his campaign is not going to be about attacking any other Republicans and he would rather debate policy differences on legitimate issues. Thus, instead of indulging in verbal blitzkrieg against political rivals, Rubio has been focused on building a personal narrative – one of struggle of the son of immigrant maid and a hotel bartender.
In press conferences and interviews, Rubio reiterates the debt he owes to America for changing his family’s history saying, “America is the only place in the world where who you come from doesn’t determine how far you go’. And this is American miracle of a strong economy and equal opportunity which Rubio envisions for the American citizens in his efforts to build the New American Century. Resolute in his preparation for image building, reportedly Rubio’s political action committee paid a firm more than $40,000 to conduct opposition research on Rubio, to dig into family stories, financial documents and real estate records- anything that could emerge in a political “oppo” file. Whilst campaign financing and making super PACs play a pivotal role in politics and especially for GOP contending presidential nominees, Rubio’s financial struggles are only favourably playing into his hands. His paltry estimated net worth of $444,000 according to the Center for Responsive Politics vis-a-vis other candidates has appealed to the American middle class.
In the context of Rubio’s policies, his promise of uniting disparate wings of the GOP and bringing change by dislocating establishment politics has drawn a large section of the American populace to him who are disillusioned with Washington’s politics. His vision for tax and higher education reforms to usher in a “New American Century” is marked by innovation and prosperity to ensure America’s global competitiveness. He has also pledged to overhaul the higher education system within the first 100 days of his presidency by expanding access to career and vocational schools as well as apprenticeship programmes for training on the job.
True to his conservative party roots, he argues against raising the minimum wage as he believes it would only accelerate automation and outsourcing of jobs rather than improve the quality of workers’ lives. This is one issue that is going to dominate the 2016 elections as Hillary Clinton, the most likely Democratic Party nominee, has made the issue of raising the minimum wage the centerpiece of her campaign.
Whilst the US presidential elections are never about foreign policy issues, the 2016 elections would be markedly different and foreign policy is going to be central to the elections. In the realm of foreign policy, Rubio’s ability to articulate the message of America’s international leadership will sustain him in the long race to the Oval Office. As he writes on his vision of the US foreign policy and how America can restore its strengths in Foreign Affairs, he states that he would first and foremost restore relationships in the 21st century with new world powers like India, China and Japan and will build diplomatic trust.
His foreign policy orientation towards China vacillates between one of an accommodating approach whilst sounding tough on policies China follows domestically.
Recently, Rubio slammed China’s new two-child policy saying it will still allow the Communist government to force women to abort any children conceived after they have two children. In the domain of international trade, to give more heft to President Obama’s Pivot to Asia policy, Rubio had voted to give the administration fast track authority to push its Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. On issues of Middle East, during his latest interview on ‘Face the Nation’, he spoke about a broader strategy of tactical coordination among the United States, Kurds and Sunnis to defeat the Islamic State.
The latest Monmouth University poll shows Republican candidate Donald Trump maintaining his lead in the GOP New Hampshire primary but Rubio has tripled his support since September. Rubio was in third place at 13% but that is up from 4% from the last Monmouth New Hampshire poll in September. Rubio’s favorability rating has risen since September climbing from 50% to 62% after his widely praised debate performance.
This upward mobility in polls comes after Rubio gave a good response when asked about his sparse attendance record in the Senate. Rubio is increasingly likened to being the Obama of the GOP. However, despite the obvious comparison, it gives Rubio far too much credit for someone who has just begun to exhibit potential for GOP nomination. When moderator John Harwood asked Rubio to respond to the fact that the Tax Foundation determined his tax plan would enrich the top 1 percent much more than the middle-class, Rubio denied the math saying, “You’re wrong” and accused the Tax Foundation of mixing up percentage calculations. As the race intensifies, Rubio’s longevity in the race would be predicated on his ability to go deeper into details of his policies to convince American voters of his vision and viability of the ‘New American Century’.
*Sylvia Mishra is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi