Marco Rubio is the last of the Senate Three to declare his candidacy. First Sen. Ted Cruz, then Sen. Rand Paul, and now the other freshman senator with no executive experience is making his pitch for why he should be president.
Each man has a double but related challenge. The first is political: How do they convince a Republican electorate that believes—or has been conditioned to believe—that Obama’s lack of executive experience was proof he wasn’t up for the job? The second challenge is making the substantive case: How will they actually achieve the things they promise?
The first question, as Barack Obama proved, is pretty easy to overcome if you give voters something to cheer about. Partisans want to be moved. Cruz appealed to conservatives through the evangelical base. Paul appealed to conservatives through a pitch to the libertarian and tea party mix of liberty voters.
Rubio appealed to his audience by singing the song of the American dream and his family’s embodiment of it. “My father stood behind a small portable bar in the back of a room for all those years, so that tonight I could stand behind this podium in the front of this room,” Rubio said. The speech was full of lovely rhetorical notes like his conjuring of the sound of his father’s keys when he came home at night. This is powerful and appealing to voters. Rubio is the kind of politician who makes voters proud to be in a party that would have him in it.
On the second question—how they are going to achieve their visions—Cruz and Paul both suggested that they would build such a powerful uprising of conservatives outraged at Washington that they would pressure the gridlocked system into changing its ways. Paul, like Obama in 2007, referred to his bipartisan efforts he’s made while in the Senate (and, like Obama, oversold the promise contained in them).
Rubio opted out of answering the question altogether. He didn’t talk about what he has done in the Senate or what he tried to do (immigration reform) or what he accomplished before he came to Washington. His speech was a tone poem to the possibilities of America.
It was here that Rubio made his only feint toward the question of his competency. “I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege. ... I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot. Because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake, and I can make a difference as president,” Rubio said.
By this logic, to challenge Rubio’s fitness for the job is to challenge the premise of the American dream itself. That Rubio can make a difference seems to be founded, for the moment, on the idea that he is from a country where in the past the improbable has made a difference.
Of all three candidates’ announcements, Rubio’s was the purest embodiment of the Obama caricature. It was all words. Even Obama, in his announcement speech, made a go at trying to explain how he would reach the bipartisan promise land he was outlining.
This tells us something about the enduring power of the rhetorical ability that got President Obama elected. Despite the derision about a candidate and a president who is all talk, words and the images Rubio conjures are essential to his campaign. (You don’t make your opening pitch with your weakest stuff.)
Rubio also took another page from the Obama playbook. Obama could preach change and have voters believe it because he looked different. No matter what he did in office, he would represent a change. Rubio’s opening speech reflected the same logic. America’s challenges can only be solved through a new generation, he said. “This election is not just about what laws we will pass. It is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be. Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday.” The generational charge is central to his argument that he is a great contrast to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, but it’s also a posture only he can embody. No one looks and acts like a new generation more than Marco Rubio.
A campaign announcement can’t be all things, and the lack of policy is obviously not because Rubio doesn’t have any policy ideas. He has delivered more detailed presidential policy than any other candidate and is making that a big element of his campaign: new solutions for a new generation. Unlike a candidate like Gov. Scott Walker, who promises boldness but has yet to offer much that is bold, or Paul, whose call for term limits and a balanced budget amendment is recycling ideas that have been around for decades, Rubio is promising newness and has a series of actual ideas that are new. The unanswered question for the Florida senator is how he can use more than mere rhetoric to achieve all of the policy ideas he has.