The fascination with Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio is understandable. Both are young and ambitious Republicans in a party looking for its next leader. They are charismatic risk-takers who can talk to the media beyond just Fox News. Also alliteration may be destiny. Headline writers cannot resist writing Rand and Rubio combination. (See examples, here, here, here, here, and above.) Both men are also considering running for president.
We should leave them to their hobbies. It's three years until the next primary and it's silly to assign too much presidential weight to anything they do now. (Though it's not crazy to imagine people returning to the Rand Paul filibuster of 2013 the way they did Barack Obama's convention speech in 2004). But even now, the presidential jockeying of these two men is interesting in another context. It tells us something about the Republican Party they would hope to lead. The GOP is going through a molting period. The route each man charts and how successful he is in capturing arguments of the moment—on immigration, drones, and whatever else comes up—will tell us something about what the emerging Republican Party values and what it might look like as it tries to get in shape for the next national contest.
If the Republican Party of 2016 embraces either of these two senators it will be a radically different party. If either is elevated into a serious national candidate, it would reverse two old truths about presidential politics: that opposition parties promote candidates who are distinct from the sitting president and that governors have the advantage over senators.
Parties often nominate candidates that represent a clean break from whomever is in the White House. The youthful John F. Kennedy was a contrast to the aging Dwight Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan, the man of certainty, came after the always vacillating Jimmy Carter. The feel-your-pain governor Bill Clinton was a counter to the aloof patrician George H.W. Bush. Bob Dole, the war hero of the Greatest Generation, was supposed to be an antidote to Clinton the Baby Boomer and in 2000, after four more years of Bubba and his personal transgressions, Republicans nominated the born-again George W. Bush who promised at the end of every speech to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office.
Simply having a different ideology than the sitting president is generally not enough. Opposition parties always offer a different policy view, but in picking their standard bearer, they have historically decided he should also be made of different stuff. This extra differentiating attribute is one of the reasons moderate candidates have often beaten more liberal or conservative candidates: Romney over Santorum, Obama over Edwards, McCain over everyone else, John Kerry over Howard Dean, George W. Bush over Steve Forbes, Bill Clinton over Tom Harkin, Bob Dole over Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan.
The search for differentiating attributes makes sense when the president has been in office for some time. That’s because the other party has been consistently tying his policy failures to his character flaws. That allows the opposition to wrap its partisan criticisms within deeper truths. So, Barack Obama has been a bad president because he has no executive experience. He doesn't know how to make decisions because he has never run anything. Another flaw is that his political success was built on a series of good speeches. That should have warned us all along that he was only good at “playing” a politician, not at actual governing. Finally, Obama is a radical. He came to prominence with the support of the far left that opposed the Iraq war. That connection with the party’s extreme wing has always defined his essential character.
These are three of Barack Obama’s flaws. They are also three attributes of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Neither has really run a big enterprise. Both will rise to national prominence on the strength of their speeches—that is all that senators can do—and both are seen by activists as the true representatives of their core beliefs—though obviously Paul and Rubio are favored by different kinds of activists.
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