Politicians who hold or aspire to high office have learned the hard way (e.g Trent Lott speaking at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party) that when you speak to a select group of loyalists in these viral times, you are also addressing a national audience, including people who would like nothing better than to latch onto some gaffe or fringe conviction. So when Marco Rubio—the former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives who is running for Senate against Governor Charlie Crist (and leading in the polls)—spoke to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last Thursday, he had no easy task ahead of him.
This year’s CPAC reminded me of the Christian Coalition meetings of the early 1990s. It was carefully staged; the rhetoric was generally inflammatory; the participants, who numbered 10,000 or so, were passionate in their beliefs; and their beliefs oftentimes veered into the realm of the preposterous. A good many thought the best way to get out of the current economic slump was to drastically cut government spending, abolish the income tax and the Federal Reserve, and go back on the gold standard. Some wanted to close the borders, get rid of the United Nations, and impeach Obama.
In the booths on the main floor, where many of the CPAC visitors mingled, one of the largest and most popular displays was from the John Birch Society, which had been banished from the conservative mainstream by William F. Buckley Jr. three decades ago, for the insistence of its founder, Robert Welch, that Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist. In its booth, the Birch Society was selling CDs of Welch’s speeches. How was someone with dreams of becoming a U.S. senator in a state larded with independents and moderates supposed to cope with this assemblage?
Well, precisely as Rubio did. His speech to the group was a masterpiece of political positioning. He assiduously avoided endorsing any of the notions of the crackpot right. Nothing about abolishing the Fed. He was against “cap-and-trade,” but did not brand global warming a hoax. He also didn’t criticize Obama himself. In fact, he didn’t mention Obama’s name. Yet, he had the audience on its feet, and for the remainder of the three-day event, it cheered lustily whenever a speaker mentioned his name.
His trick consisted partly of echoing the great themes of conservative America: opposition to big government, support for free enterprise, a determination to defeat “radical Islam and the threat it poses through terror.” But he breathed life into these weather-beaten notions by infusing them with his own life story, which proved their worthiness and their applicability. Unlike many a prominent Republican, Rubio could not be said to have been born with a silver or even stainless steel spoon. The son of Cuban exiles—his father worked as a bartender and mother as a maid—Rubio first attended college on a football scholarship. His is the classic story of the American dream fulfilled.
In his speech, he related how his grandfather, who had grown up in rural Cuba, had told him “that because of where he was born and who he was born to, there was only so much he was able to accomplish. But he wanted me to know that I would not have those limits, that there was no dreams, no ambitions, no aspirations unavailable to me. And he was right. … I have never once felt that there was something I couldn't do because of who my parents were or weren't.”
That was because, of course, Rubio was born in the United States, not Cuba. In America, he said, “you can be anything you are willing to work hard to be. The result is the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition. And the result is the most reliable defender of freedom in the history of the world.”
Rubio never talked about Republicans and Democrats. His speech hovered above partisanship. Instead, he talked about “those who haven't seen it this way. … They think that we need a guardian class in American government to protect us from ourselves. They think that the free-enterprise system is unfair, that a few people make a lot of money, and the rest of us get left behind. They believe that the only way business can make its money is by exploiting its workers and its customers. And they think that America's enemies exist because of something America did to earn their enmity.”
These other politicians were trying to “redefine our government, our economy, and our country,” he warned. “The leaders with this worldview … have used a severe economic downturn, a severe recession as an excuse to implement the statist policies that they have longed for all this time.”
Rubio isn’t the first politician to use this kind of appeal: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton blended biography and political vision in their successful presidential campaigns. But Rubio has taken their method and used it to promote a very conservative rather than a liberal or progressive agenda. And he has done it in such a way that never really spells out what the specific agenda is. Does he think global warming is a hoax? Does he think the stimulus cost jobs rather than created them? He never said one way or the other, but his conservative audience was somehow led to believe that, like them, he held these views.
Rubio also didn’t brand his political opponents socialists. He didn’t describe the White House as followers, as one daffy speaker put it, of Marx, Engels, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, and Saul Alinsky. But using his own life story, he framed the choice facing Americans in a way that evoked the contrast between his Horatio Alger capitalism and Obama’s or Nancy Pelosi’s socialism. America, he said, “is the only country in the world where today’s employee is tomorrow’s employer. And yet, there are still people in American politics who, for some reason, cling to this belief that America is better off adopting the economic policies of nations whose people immigrate here from there.”
Rubio wasn’t referring to immigrants from the capitalist Philippines or Costa Rica, but those, like his own family, who came from socialist Cuba. “Do I want my children to grow up in the country that I grew up in or do I want them to grow up in a country like the one my parents grew up in?” he asked. The audience knew immediately what he was saying—and the choice he was posing—but his incendiary message was implicit and softened by the insertion of his biography.
Other speakers at the CPAC convention who had similar or even greater political aspirations—such as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich—also tried to stoke the audience’s passions without endorsing their specific policies or prejudices, but none did so as eloquently or credibly as Rubio. The 39-year-old Cuban-American who has the looks of a matinee idol and speaks with wit and vigor is a force to be reckoned with.