House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, points to his official portrait that will hang in the House chamber, Friday, May 2, 2008, in Tallahassee, Fla.  Rubio is in his final session as House Speaker.(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

The two main goals of the primary process – whether in a presidential or other race – are to choose the best candidate to do the job, and the candidate with the best chance of winning the job. Less than three weeks from the Iowa Caucus and less than a month from the New Hampshire Primary, we have reached a time for choosing. That choice involves a careful and serious weighing of those two objectives. Unlike in past years, the GOP’s conservative and moderate wings are both still divided, although the options are narrowing. With my first choice (Bobby Jindal) out of the race, I believe the choice for conservatives comes down to Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz – and the best candidate remaining, on balance, is Rubio. Today, I will begin a series of posts explaining why, beginning with the question of Rubio’s experience. Subsequent chapters will focus on Rubio’s salesmanship, his conservatism, and his “electability.”

The Rubio Temptation: The Gravitas Party Meets The Age Of The Shiny Object

Republican presidential primary voters face a temptation – indeed, three very different temptations, each of them a departure from the nominees (successful and unsuccessful) of the past several decades. By now, we all know the basic mold of a Republican presidential nominee in the 1952-2012 period: older, white, male, usually Protestant, generally with significant executive experience and/or a distinguished war record, often on his second try for the White House, often better known for foreign than domestic policy, rarely from the party’s liberal or conservative wings but closer to the party’s center, usually someone with strong ties to the West, Southwest or Midwest, almost always someone who has been a known quantity in national politics for a decade or two. But of the three contenders who seem most likely to still be factors in the nomination race after the first month’s voting – Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump – all break the mold in significant ways, and all tempt GOP voters to abandon old habits and accept known and uncharted risks. In terms of age, experience, and ethnic and ideological background, Rubio and Cruz depart from that mold in some very similar ways.

Let’s face it: Republicans have traditionally been the sort of stodgy bunch who think that people should not get to be the boss until they have paid their dues, accomplished things, waited their turn, and proven themselves ready to run the show. This is in most cases a healthy impulse, and I have written before at length about the virtues of experience. If it has a downside in picking leaders, it’s that we have too often chosen nominees who have been left to ossify in the Senate for too long, like Bob Dole and John McCain, each four to five decades removed from their time as vigorous young war heroes, and a quarter century removed from when they were actually considered to be among the more conservative members of the GOP caucus. Its downside in picking candidates, however, has been on graphic display in 1992, 1996, 2008 and 2012, as younger, more glamorous Democratic nominees seduced young voters who place a large premium on the virtues of youth.

The Republican habit of picking the next in line after years of experience is actually a comparatively recent development specific to the Cold War. Until 1952, the GOP had never selected a Presidential nominee as old as 60 – in fact, the party had picked four straight nominees under age 50 (all of whom lost), and had previously won three elections (in 1868, 1880 and 1904) with candidates between the ages of 46 and 48:

GOP presidential nominee ages

As you can see, a lot of this shift derived from the timing of wars. Between 1868, when Republicans ran U.S. Grant (who was 43 when he accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee) and 1896 and 1900, when the GOP ran William McKinley (who was 17 when he enlisted), Republican nominations were dominated by younger men who had fought in the Civil War. (In an all-male electorate, the Republican Party of that age was composed disproportionately of Union Army veterans). Then, between Ike in 1952 and George H.W. Bush in 1992, GOP nominees were dominated by older men who had fought, led or served in World War II. 10 of 16 Republican nominees between 1952 and 2012 have been age 60 or older.

While Republicans have not won the White House with a non-incumbent nominee under age 50 since James Garfield in 1880, the Democrats have gone in the opposite direction, and have not won the White House with a non-incumbent nominee over age 60 since James Buchanan in 1856 (this year their two choices will be 69 and 75 on Election Day). Their infatuation with the Next New Thing traces back to 36-year-old former one-term Congressman William Jennings Bryan, who won the Democratic nomination in 1896 and again in 1900 and 1908, and it blossomed into a full-blown crush with John F. Kennedy in 1960, Gary Hart in 1984 (who nearly tied Walter Mondale in the primary popular vote), the Bill Clinton/Al Gore ticket in 1992, John Edwards on the national ticket in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008.

The Republican strategy of choosing mature, tested leaders paid off for a long time, especially during the Cold War. Democrats won a popular-vote majority just twice between 1948 and 2004 (in 1964 after the JFK assassination and in 1976 after Watergate), compared to seven times for the GOP. Starting in 1994, Republicans also cracked through the old gerrymanders and hereditary party loyalties to take control of the House and a growing number of state governments, and it has frequently out-performed the results that were projected by polls and media doomsayers. The party by the George W. Bush years had thus grown accustomed to thinking of itself as the natural, if quiet, majority.

With this backdrop, 2008 and 2012 hit victory-minded Republicans especially hard. To see a majority won in 2008 by the most lightly-qualified presidential candidate of modern times, and then repeated in 2012 after the least impressive first term since Jimmy Carter and the most partisan first term since FDR, was profoundly alarming and depressing for many Republicans. The obvious inference that Obama was given a pass on his unprecedentedly weak resume on account of the color of his skin only makes the whole phenomenon more irksome. Republicans in the Obama era have made it something of a point of pride that we don’t do this sort of thing.

But at some point, you have to face up to the possibility that you are losing because you keep doing the same thing that used to work, instead of trying the thing that the other side is using to beat you. And that’s the Rubio temptation, the hope of re-creating the lighting in a bottle that Democrats found with Obama in 2008, Clinton in 1992, and JFK in 1960: youth, glamor, eloquence, cool. Republicans haven’t had a candidate with Rubio’s kind of charisma since Reagan (and before Reagan, hadn’t had one since Teddy Roosevelt, well before the age of radio, let alone TV or the Web), and Reagan was an old man who oozed maturity – his cool was not hipness but the retro cool of a guy old enough to have starred in black and white films.

Rubio, of course, is not the only major candidate in this race who breaks this mold. Ted Cruz is also an unusually young and inexperienced candidate – at 45, Cruz is just six months older than Rubio, and also a first-term Senator, elected two years after Rubio. And Trump, the third major candidate in the race, may be old (he’ll turn 70 a week after the end of the primaries) but has never held public office at all (Wendell Willkie is the only prior Republican nominee who’d never been an elected official, a military officer or a Cabinet Secretary). After eight years of criticizing Obama for taking a job he was unprepared for, should Republicans be picking a candidate as green as Obama?

Speaker of the House Marco Rubio, R-Miami, speaks at a news conference regarding the property tax issue, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007, in Tallahassee, Fla. AP Photo/Phil Coale)

Mister Speaker Rubio

The experience question seems particularly to dog Rubio, in good part because of his youthful appearance (many voters seem unaware that he and Cruz are the same age). Erick Erickson’s focus group of 35 undecideds in December delivered this message:

The most interesting part of the night came in a consideration of Rubio vs. Cruz. I asked all 35 to identify a word that they associated with both men. With Rubio, the most common word was “inexperienced.” With Cruz, the word was a variation of “accomplished.”

When I pointed out that Rubio had been in the Senate longer than Cruz, most did not realize it. Rubio’s youthful appearance, compared to Cruz looking older, affected their views on the two men.

Or consider a recent YouGov national poll, which asked whether the candidates are ready to be Commander-in-Chief. Less than half (47%) thought Hillary Clinton ready for the job, and none of the other six candidates topped Jeb Bush’s 34%, but of the five Republican candidates tested, Cruz scored highest among Republican primary voters at 64%, compared to Rubio at 52%. While the voters have tossed the most accomplished Governors from the field (Jindal, Rick Perry, Scott Walker), the three Governors remaining on the main stage (Jeb, Christie and Kasich), who are competing with Rubio in New Hampshire, have been hitting him hard on their advantage in executive experience.

The irony here is that Rubio actually has a quantitative and qualitative edge in experience in politics over Cruz, as well as over President Obama in 2008. And if he is going to convince the voters that he is really ready to lead this country, Rubio needs to talk more about his tenure as Speaker of the Florida House. As I’ll explain in more detail in a subsequent installment, that would serve an additional purpose, because his Florida tenure not only showcases Rubio as a leader who has actually accomplished things, but illustrates as well his willingness as a conservative to pick fights with the moderate leadership of his own party.

There are a few reasons why Rubio may be hesitant to focus on his years as a state legislator. First, being a U.S. Senator is obviously a more prestigious role – there are only 100 Senators and they grapple with national issues, whereas there are over a thousand state legislators and many of them represent tiny districts and deal mainly with local issues. Second, in a season when voters are angry at the political class, Rubio may not want to highlight the fact that he is by any definition a career politician, having been first elected to office in his twenties when he was still living with his parents. And third, seven years of Rubio’s nine-year tenure in the Florida House overlapped with the Governorship of Jeb Bush, and Rubio may be hesitant to tout legislative accomplishments that are easily described as Jeb Bush’s accomplishments.

But by the end of 2016, Rubio will have spent 16 years in elected office, four times the experience of Cruz in elective politics, twice that of Hillary Clinton, and more than any candidate left in the Republican field besides Kasich. (Rubio won two elections before Hillary first ran for office). Unlike candidates who have spent most of their careers inside the Beltway, Rubio started at the very lowest rung of elective politics as a member of the 5-person City Commission that governed the 6,000-person predominantly Cuban hamlet of West Miami, and worked his way up in the State House in Tallahassee.

In the absence of executive experience – and Obama’s election called into question whether the voters value that as much as they used to, or as much as I’d like – the next-best kind of experience for the Presidency is political leadership experience. Republican presidents in the past who lacked the experience of leading a political coalition (e.g., as a Governor) generally fared poorly, the most extreme example being the rapid dissolution of the party under William Howard Taft, who came to the White House from experience in the legal system (as a judge and Solicitor General), in colonial administration (as Governor-General of the Philippines) and as Secretary of War. Barack Obama had no such experience – he’d served as a backbencher in the minority all but his last two years as State Senator (and spent most of those running for Senate), in his first two years as Senator (after which he was gone running for President), and had never been elected to any leadership position by his colleagues. And it showed: Obama has gotten a lot done by executive fiat, but his relationships with even his own party’s Congressional leadership have been frosty, and he never did learn how to relate to people in the other party, resulting in his failure to get much besides Obamacare and Dodd-Frank through Congress and five years of governing by crisis. Cruz, who has spent most of his Senate tenure staging filibusters, shutdown fights and other episodes of brinksmanship, has proven his willingness and ability to say no, a very valuable trait for a conservative in DC. But can he actually get people in his own caucus to follow him? That’s an open question.

For Rubio, it is not. Like Henry Clay or Dick Cheney in the House of Representatives, Rubio in the Florida House was identified immediately as leadership material, and appointed within a year to one of two majority whip jobs in the GOP caucus before he turned 30. Two years later, in 2002, he was named House Majority Leader, and for the last two years of his tenure (2006-08), he was Speaker of the House. While his ascent up the leadership ladder was accelerated by term limits that cleared out more senior members, that’s still a remarkable record of winning the confidence and support of his own caucus. As a long and not especially sympathetic profile by Michael Mishak in the National Journal notes, Rubio won that confidence in large part by handling redistricting after the 2000 Census at the behest of the then-Speaker:

In his second year in the Le­gis­lature, he vo­lun­teered to help a com­mit­tee tasked with the once-in-a-dec­ade ritu­al of re­draw­ing vot­ing dis­trict bound­ar­ies. It’s a te­di­ous task, one that in­volves man­aging the griev­ances of dozens of law­makers whose polit­ic­al ca­reers could end with the shift­ing of lines. John­nie Byrd, a Re­pub­lic­an lead­er on his way to be­com­ing speak­er, thought Ru­bio would be per­fect for the job. “He has this real abil­ity to com­mu­nic­ate with people all over the state,” Byrd says. “Many Miami-based le­gis­lat­ors don’t have that abil­ity to com­mu­nic­ate statewide, so I let him run with it.”

Fueled by a steady diet of Moun­tain Dew and Cuban cof­fee, Ru­bio pored over the le­gis­lat­ive maps. He broke the state in­to five re­gions and met one-on-one with law­makers to help draw bound­ar­ies. “The most per­son­al thing a le­gis­lat­or ever has to deal with is their own dis­trict,” Byrd says, “and he was able to make them reas­on­ably happy. “… Ima­gine a fresh­man le­gis­lat­or in an or­gan­iz­a­tion driv­en by seni­or­ity and he cap­tiv­ates all of them, on both sides of the aisle, and brings it in for a land­ing.”

I highly recommend anyone interested in how Rubio would lead, or what he is made of, read two further writeups on his Florida House tenure – one from Perry Bacon at NBC News, the other by Jim Geraghty at National Review.

Rubio’s approach throughout his years in Tallahassee was constructed around team-building and getting buy-in from his caucus. As Majority Leader, he focused on message (communicating is what Rubio does best), and as Speaker, Rubio’s election to the job in 2005 (a year ahead of taking it) set the tone, which he would follow up by devolving more power to committee chairs:

He was the first Cuban-Amer­ic­an to win the job, and the Voice of Amer­ica beamed his speech to coun­tries around the globe, in­clud­ing Cuba. Nearly 200 people flew from Ru­bio’s ho­met­own to Tal­l­a­hassee to at­tend the ce­re­mony, which took place in the state House cham­bers. They wore lam­in­ated floor passes in­scribed with a quote from Ron­ald Re­agan: “There’s no lim­it to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the cred­it.”

Dur­ing his speech, Ru­bio—dressed in a dark suit with a red rose on his left lapel—asked House mem­bers to ex­am­ine their desks. In­side, law­makers found, wrapped in gift pa­per, a hard­cov­er book titled 100 In­nov­at­ive Ideas For Flor­ida’s Fu­ture. It was blank. Ru­bio then told his vis­ibly per­plexed col­leagues that they would fill in the pages to­geth­er dur­ing the run-up to his speak­er­ship. The ideas would come from or­din­ary Flor­idi­ans, he said, and mem­bers would col­lect them at town hall-style meet­ings called “idear­aisers.” The gam­bit quickly won rave re­views from na­tion­al fig­ures, in­clud­ing Newt Gin­grich, who called the concept “a work of geni­us.”

Rubio fought tooth and nail with then-Governor Charlie Crist on an array of issues (I’ll return to some of those another day), and at the end of the day he cut some deals with Crist to move the ball in a conservative direction (e.g., on property tax relief) while leaving Crist stymied on efforts to move the chains the other way:

In his second ses­sion, Ru­bio played hard­ball with Crist. Cli­mate change was one of Crist’s sig­na­ture is­sues, and he wanted the Le­gis­lature to pass a bill that would lay the ground­work for a Cali­for­nia-style cap-and-trade sys­tem to cut car­bon emis­sions. Ru­bio and House con­ser­vat­ives op­posed the idea, but pub­lic sen­ti­ment was with Crist. The House ul­ti­mately passed the bill, but Ru­bio’s team in­ser­ted a pois­on pill that pre­ven­ted the plan from go­ing in­to ef­fect. “I fully cred­it him with the gut­ting of the bill,” Gel­ber says.

Rubio – like Cruz – also spent a few years in private law practice and did some teaching on the side, but neither ever seems to have viewed those roles as more than a stepping-stone to bigger things in politics.

The Cruz Road

Cruz has taken a different path to the Senate, one with its own virtues, but also with fewer opportunities to lead. Marked as a star coming out of Princeton and Harvard Law School, he started off on the traditional path of the elite of the DC bar – clerkships on the Fourth Circuit in Richmond and for Chief Justice Rehnquist, a job at a DC law firm (where he represented John Boehner during Boehner’s successful lawsuit against Jim McDermott for intercepting a phone call) – before joining the George W. Bush campaign in 1999. Cruz started off at the Ashcroft Justice Department, working on the transition team and as Associate Deputy Attorney General working with the Office of Policy Development and the Office of Legal Counsel, but he left that job after six months to run the Office of Policy Planning in the Federal Trade Commission from 2001-03, working on early internet-regulation issues as well as a variety of ambitious initiatives to break down legal barriers to competition. Again, Jim Geraghty has a fair and detailed look at Cruz’s FTC years, noting that he “earned a reputation as a passionate boss intent on tracking the success of the office’s efforts in granular detail,” in some contrast to Rubio’s more hands-off, delegation-driven management style. Like Rubio, Cruz had mixed success in his early years, and was more successful at stopping bad policies than promoting good ones. It is useful that he would come to the Presidency having seen the DC bureaucracy and its obstacle course from the inside, but at the same time, his policy-director jobs were never really high enough on the pyramid to really move any sort of ambitious agenda.

After seven years in DC, Cruz left to go home to Texas in 2003, where he would spend five years as the state’s Solicitor General (he was appointed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, now the Governor), arguing cases in the state and federal Supreme Courts. Michael Kruse at Politico had a long profile of Cruz’s SG years, including his eight Supreme Court arguments and his role in dozens of amicus briefs in cases like Heller v. DC, the landmark Second Amendment case. Cruz managed a staff of a dozen lawyers, not much more in the way of executive experience than being a legislative committee chair; what distinguished him was his role as a forceful and brilliant advocate and his ambitious expansion of the office’s filing of amicus briefs. That testifies to Cruz’s talent and principles (neither of which can fairly be disputed), but it also means that most of his pre-Senate career was in the rarified air of the appellate courts and federal policy-setting offices, while Rubio was in Tallahassee and Miami building political bridges and wrangling the support of legislators. Cruz is plainly the better choice of the two for a Supreme Court seat, and in the long run his “bad cop” role in the Senate is valuable simply for ensuring there will always be someone to demand a better deal. But Presidents don’t just debate and demand; they lead. Rubio’s experience prepares him better to do that.

Senator Rubio

Admittedly, Rubio – like Cruz, Hillary, and Obama – lacks a particularly accomplished record in the U.S. Senate. Partly that’s due to not being there very long, but even moreso it’s due to the fact that the Senate has been completely dysfunctional for most of the past decade, so really nobody has gotten much done there. This is a major reason why Rubio decided to leave to run for President.

It should be noted here that Rubio is entering his sixth year in the Senate, while Cruz is in his fourth – just as Obama was in his fourth. That’s not an enormous difference, but the reality is that Rubio and Cruz have been mostly focused on running for President in 2015-16, just as Obama and Hillary were in 2007-08, and in turn that means that the real time that Rubio has been a full-time Senator is four years to Cruz’s and Obama’s two. That’s particularly important in foreign affairs, where Rubio has had more time to develop his expertise and fluency on the issue (unlike, say, Obama, who didn’t even show up to run his own subcommittee because he was only appointed to run it the year before the presidential election).

Rubio has focused heavily on foreign policy and national security in the Senate (much as Cruz has). In addition to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (both Rubio and Cruz are on the committee and chair subcommitees), Rubio has served on the Foreign Relations and Select Intelligence Committees (plus Small Business), and chaired the awkwardly-named Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security,Democracy, Human Rights, And Global Women’s Issues (which among other things has jurisdiction over U.S. Cuba policy), while Cruz has served on Armed Services, as well as Rules and Joint Economic and chairing a subcommittee on Judiciary. Both have traveled abroad and been actively engaged in debates on surveillance, Syria and Iran as well as (in Rubio’s case, since it precedes Cruz’s Senate tenure, Libya). The value of Rubio’s Select Intelligence Committee service is that it has given him more regular inside access to classified intelligence, something Presidents have to consume regularly.

Rubio’s major effort to build a bipartisan legislative coalition in DC was, of course, the Gang of Eight immigration bill in early 2013, a poorly-conceived last effort to find middle ground on immigration reform that fell apart for a variety of reasons, not least that Rubio delegated too much of the drafting of a massive bill to untrustworthy Democrats like Chuck Schumer. But his major policy win in the Senate is also worth recalling: the repeal of “risk corrdior” bailouts for insurers in Obamacare.

The risk corrdior bailout presents a real contrast in styles with Cruz, who has fought furiously (even to the point of pushing a government shutdown) for total war against Obamacare, to great (if debatable) political effect, but none in practice. Rubio, by contrast, took on a more manageable target and focused on messaging – he announced and introduced a bill in late 2013 attacking the bailout program, and his early efforts were critical:

As Forbes’ Avik Roy, a longtime leading critic of Obamacare (and now a Rubio adviser) explains:

Staffers at the Senate Budget Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee had been sniffing around Obamacare’s risk corridors in the spring and summer of 2013. But Sen. Rubio was the first to publicly raise concerns about the issue. In a November 2013 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Rubio wrote, “While risk corridors can protect taxpayers when they are budget-neutral, ObamaCare’s risk corridors are designed in such an open-ended manner that the president’s action now exposes taxpayers to a bailout of the health-insurance industry if and when the law fails.” Simultaneously, Rubio announced that he was introducing a bill, “The Obamacare Bailout Prevention Act,” to repeal Obamacare’s risk corridors.

Rubio’s hell-raising about Obamacare’s risk corridors was well covered at the time. No one disputes that Rubio was the first to raise concerns about risk corridors, nor that he was the first to introduce legislation to address their fiscal problems.

…The House Oversight Committee, when Blase worked there, held hearings on the issue, and asked Rubio to be its star witness at one such session in February 2014. It was the Oversight Committee that first brought to light correspondence between insurers and White House consigliera Valerie Jarrett, warning that the elimination of risk corridors would lead to double-digit premium increases.

(There’s a lot more links and sources in Roy’s column). Typically, Rubio did not end up doing the dirty work of actually writing his bill into the 2014 “cromnibus” spending bill, and both Rubio and Cruz voted against the cromnibus (both on cloture and the bill itself). Nonetheless, he succeeded in making an issue of the risk corridor bailouts and persuading his colleagues to follow his lead. And that has had real effects in practice, as The Hill reported in November:

Sen. Marco Rubio may have dealt the biggest blow in the GOP’s five-year war against ObamaCare.

A 2014 budget measure inspired by the Florida Republican and presidential hopeful is pushing some insurers to drop out of the ObamaCare exchanges, experts say.

“I think this is one of the most effective things they’ve done so far in terms of trying to undermine the Affordable Care Act,” Tim Jost, a healthcare law professor at Washington and Lee University, said of Republicans in Congress.

This fall, more than a dozen health insurers representing 800,000 people have dropped out of the ObamaCare exchanges, many out of fear that the administration no longer has the cash to cushion their losses in the costly early years of the marketplace.

Given his lack of executive experience and relatively short tenure in DC, Rubio is not my ideal candidate, nor the traditional ideal of GOP presidential nominees. But he would come to the presidency with a decade and a half of experience in elected office, and years of practice as a political leader and spokesman, not just a lone voice on the periphery. Leadership matters, and we don’t have to guess if Rubio can do it; we know, because he has.

Tags: Marco Rubio