Will the Republican Party Let Marco Rubio or Rand Paul Lead?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 25 2013 11:25 AM

Rand vs. Rubio

Whether either senator will become a presidential contender depends on how much the Republican Party is willing to change.

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If a candidate holds the very attributes his party has been arguing are so damaging, you might think that would undermine his pitch. Fortunately for these candidates, politics is not rational, so partisans will just stop believing these are catastrophic shortcomings when their favorite fellow happens to have them. Still, these similarities to Obama leave fewer ways for these two men to distinguish themselves from the Obama years (and each other) in a national contest. It will be interesting to see if both men will make sharper ideological pitches, since that is the attribute they can point to that shows the greatest differentiation.

If either of these two senators makes a serious go of it, he will also challenge the historical preference for governors. Both parties have liked men that hail from the statehouse: Carter, Reagan, Dukakis, Clinton, Bush. Four of our last five presidents have been governors. That’s logical: Governors do a lot of things that presidents do. They have to pick a staff and delegate enormous responsibility to them, negotiate with interest groups, battle with a legislature, and make hundreds of decisions when avoiding them is not an option. There are very few senators who prefer their life in the Senate to the sense of accomplishment and agency they had as governors.

Governors also shoot straighter, if for no other reason than they are habituated to explaining actions where they cannot duck accountability. The buck stops at their desk. Legislators are expert at diffusion. They take more credit than they deserve for the collective legislative process, and elude blame on controversial matters by citing the process. “I was for it before I was against it,” as former Sen. John Kerry once said.

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There is also a political reason to pick a governor. They work outside of Washington. Voters are often looking for figures unstained by the system. The authors of the recent GOP “autopsy” report are also enamored of governors for another political reason. They represent a synthesis between GOP principles and a reality that has led to electoral success. There are 30 Republican governors, and Congress is less popular than head lice. Which is the better farm team? It seems only natural that GOP voters would pick from their stable of Republican governors or former governors—someone like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, or Scott Walker. 

If Republicans do not rally around their governors, they will be making a conscious choice to ignore all of these arguments in favor of some other attribute they value more highly. And we see that happening as Gov. Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia are heckled for not being conservative enough. At the moment, ideology trumps experience in the Republican Party, which is extraordinary since a lack of executive experience has long been presented as one of Barack Obama’s signature flaws.

Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have three possible roads they can take. They can reach the usual historical place occupied by the likes of Sen. Howard Baker, Sen. John Glenn, and Sen. Bob Kerrey, men who looked like presidential material until a governor came along. Or, they can wind up like Sen. John McCain and win their party’s nomination but flame out in the general election. The best possible outcome is to follow Barack Obama’s route. But it is not entirely up to Rubio and Rand. Which road they have available to them will depend on how much the Republican Party is willing to change. 

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