Timothy Stanley: New Bush strategy compares Rubio with Obama as critique of inexperience. Problem is, Obama has much going for him
Stanley: Difference is press leans liberal, which would not favor Rubio, a potential "transitional" candidate to help capture Latino vote
Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Team Bush has a strategy to beat Marco Rubio: Compare him with Barack Obama. Which raises the question, who wouldn’t want to be Obama?! He’s handsome, persuasive and won two presidential elections. The right could do with an Obama, although the dynamics of U.S. politics mean they probably won’t get one. The liberals won’t allow it.
Of course Republican primary voters do not have such a high opinion of the President as I do, and the “slanderous” comparison of the two men implies that Rubio is just as inexperienced and insubstantial – that he is counting on his boyish pulchritude to disguise a lack of accomplishment. The attack is predictable and not without basis. Team Bush points out that Rubio has only been in the Senate for four years, that no senator has endorsed him and that his legislative accomplishments are slight.
One place where Rubio did try to stake out fresh ground as a senator, in 2013, was immigration reform, which earned him some friendly press. But when the GOP grass-roots turned against it, labeling it amnesty, he cooled off. That turned out to be a smart move: The rise of Donald Trump proves immigration matters a lot in this year’s race.
But this leaves Rubio with a rather unclear position. In the debate he talked tough on the subject of visas. But it doesn’t take much Googling to discover that the legislation Rubio has backed does nothing to deter U.S. employers seeking to import cheaper workers.
The salience of the immigration issue speaks to another way in which Rubio could be compared to Obama: They both embody the politics of identity. I’m not suggesting for one moment that Bush is playing the race card with the comparison, that he is suggesting Rubio is the Latino Obama. But it is undeniable that part of Obama’s political success was his transitional personality.
By supporting an African-American, many voters likely felt they were addressing historical abuses and moving the country forward. Likewise, by voting for Rubio, the right may feel it is addressing its own problems with race and embracing a section of voters it has hitherto alienated.
The ambition is noble. The fact is that America is changing and the Spanish-speaking population growing, so there is a risk that they will be driven into the hands of the Democratic Party by the rhetoric of some on the Republican right. Rubio can correct that. The nomination, even election, of a non-WASP conservative has the potential to open up politics to real competition and integrate Spanish-speakers.
Again, if Rubio is an imitation of Obama, then please bring it on. America needs this. The Republicans need it, too – for without it they are doomed to a minority status of their very own.
But here’s the big difference between Obama and Rubio: One is a liberal and the other is a conservative. That might seem an obvious point to make but it affects how their transitional candidacies will be presented and received. To put it crudely, the press and the cultural establishment loved Obama. Because of Rubio’s politics, I doubt they’ll love the Floridian nearly as much.
The evidence is strong that Obama enjoyed favorable press coverage compared with John McCain in 2008. Maybe that was inevitable: He was a better performer and McCain was saddled by association with the Bush recession. By contrast, it’s notable that Rubio’s sudden Marcomentum has occurred not because of favorable press notices but because he has attacked the press for its grinding negativity.
After the aggressive, sometimes snide questioning that he and his peers receiving at the CNBC debate, it is hard not to share his frustrations. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg blames the tone on a structural bias. The media, he says, presume that liberals argue from a position of good faith. Conservatives are regarded as either mad, bad or dumb.
Of course, Obama did get some tough media scrutiny in 2008. Not only were his racial politics unpacked but he was even accused, inaccurately, of being non-American. But, on balance, the hope and change narrative he rode represented a widespread willingness to suspend all critical faculties and embrace the thrill of the moment.
It undoubtedly helped the Democrat win the White House. Rubio enjoys the strengths and weaknesses of Obama – but don’t expect him to have as easy a ride.