On July 27, 2009, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio swung by the D.C. offices of National Review (where I'm a contributing editor). He was there seeking support for his then-long-shot candidacy for Mel Martinez's U.S. Senate seat. That seat is currently held by George LeMieux, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to keep it warm for himself. Rubio was relatively low on funds at the time, and Crist was still seen as a shoo-in by the political establishment.
Rubio was pretty much exactly as you see him on TV. Fast-talking, confident, youthful, energetic and knowledgeable. We were all very impressed with him. Moreover, the general consensus inside the room was that the general consensus outside the room was wrong.
In several recent elections, the base of the Republican Party has been asked to vote for fairly moderate candidates they didn't particularly like. Despite a lot of spin that John McCain represented a "third term" for George W. Bush, the Arizona senator had, in fact, been a thorn in the side of both the party machinery and the conservative rank-and-file. Many conservatives still kick their cats across the room whenever they're reminded of President Bush's stumping for Arlen Specter.
This year, we reasoned, Republicans surely would be asked again to pull the lever for moderates. Some were already foreseeable, like Rep. Mark Kirk in Illinois (vying for President Obama's Senate seat) and Rep. Mike Castle (seeking Vice President Joe Biden's Senate seat in Delaware). In other cases it was likely that the base would be asked to either vote for a conservative loser or a moderate (potential) winner.
There's nothing wrong with such compromises. Even William F. Buckley insisted he was merely for the most conservative candidate electable. In politics, when you make the perfect the enemy of the good, you open the door to something even worse.Hence the appeal of Rubio. At the time, we concluded that the base of the GOP, both nationally and particularly in Florida, would be starving for an opportunity to support a principled conservative who could actually win in a general election. Add in the fact that Crist had both literally and figuratively hugged Obama in response to the stimulus package, and the fact that Florida's GOP primary is closed, and it seemed obvious that the Cuban American Rubio was that guy. My colleague, John Miller, wrote the National Review cover story that helped nationalize Rubio's candidacy.
A lot has happened since then. We were proved right, and so much of the conventional wisdom has been proved wrong. Rubio's jalopy of a candidacy quickly turned into a juggernaut, chasing Crist out of the GOP entirely. Indeed, many now call Rubio the "GOP's Obama," which is not quite right. If Rubio wins and then runs for president in 2012, the comparison will be more apt.
For years, Beltway conventional wisdom held that Republicans need to embrace Latinos, to become more youthful and more hip. So what's the response to a 38-year-old Latino son of immigrants from Miami who quotes Snoop Dogg on his Twitter account and has successfully knocked a classically hackish older pol from his perch?
Even more recently, we've been told that the GOP needs to get serious about governing and be willing to make tough choices. In the same "Fox News Sunday" interview in March in which Crist insisted that he would not run as an independent, both men were asked what they would do about the deficit. Rubio said he was open to the politically perilous option of changing the cost-of-living formula for Social Security. Crist pandered to older Floridians claiming their entitlement is sacrosanct and instead mouthed some nonsense about Social Security "fraud" and "waste." There's precious little of either. Again, it seems that being "serious" about governing means nothing more than agreeing with Democrats.
Barring some literal or figurative tragedy, Rubio will in all likelihood be the next senator from Florida, yet victory will again be proof to the usual Beltway crowd that the GOP just can't win.