It has come to my attention that some of my well-meaning liberal friends never understood Marco Rubio’s appeal. At all. These are the same people who think that John Kasich would be the perfect Republican candidate.
I’ve been covering Rubio since 2010, when he first ran for the U.S. Senate. What follows is a sincere explainer on what I always saw as Rubio’s appeal.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Marco Rubio is the universal choice for conservatives (if he were, he’d be winning the primary instead of being in grave danger of losing his home state on Tuesday). But I am suggesting that for a segment of movement conservatives, like me, Rubio’s likely unrealized potential cannot be overstated.
Let me be frank. Ronald Reagan was the greatest conservative communicator of my lifetime. Marco Rubio is the second. I’m not sure who’s third.
I’ve always believed, going back to Reagan, that a true conservative could still win in our liberal culture and simultaneously persuade and teach non-conservatives that conservatism was the best philosophy to bring about human flourishing.
Reagan was tough and a populist but, paradoxically, he was conciliatory and cosmopolitan (the toughness was reserved for adversaries, not the public). He won over Americans by the force of his charm, and then persuaded them that his philosophy was correct. He was utterly decent, utterly defensible and utterly likable.
Why did this matter? You’ve got to understand that for my entire life, conservatism has had a bad rap. The perception has that we are mean, evil, or even racist. That’s not who I am, and that’s not what the conservatism I grew up with is. And that’s not who Reagan was, either. And I’ve always believed that dispelling this myth about the “evil, racist, Republican” was at least one of the important functions of a conservatism that wanted to grow.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that electing a Hispanic president—a Cuban-American, nonetheless—would suddenly win over Hispanics. But Rubio is fluent in Spanish, and I suspect that four or eight years of appearing on Spanish language media might not hurt.
But it’s more than that. Did you see what happened in, of all places, South Carolina when Gov. Nikki Haley (a female Republican and daughter of immigrants from India) and Sen. Tim Scott (a black Republican) endorsed him? This could be the future of the Republican Party. These are all legitimate conservatives—but a racially diverse group who illustrate the promise that conservatism is a colorblind philosophy that can uplift all Americans.
No matter who you are—no matter your race, gender, or station in life—conservative philosophy can bring prosperity and joy to the greatest number of people, removing barriers that might prevent them from achieving the American Dream.
Rubio, like Reagan, has the potential to not just win the election, but also to win the argument. He has the rhetorical chops and eloquence to teach Americans why conservatives are not defined by the negative stereotypes. But even more than Reagan, Rubio has the personal story to match the rhetoric. As the son of a bartender and a maid—immigrants who came to this nation and have a son who is a U.S. Senator—Rubio is the embodiment of the American Dream. What is more, he has a youthful Kennedyesque quality that Reagan, by the time he entered politics, lacked.
And this is why so many of us are actually astonished by the way things have played out. This is why it’s amazingly frustrating that instead of celebrating the promise of a new conservative Republican Party, Donald Trump has hijacked this primary election by pandering to the base and stoking fear and anger.
He’s in the midst of a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. And he would redefine it, too—in a way that reinforces what all the haters used to say about us. (I’ve basically spent my whole life arguing that everything Donald Trump is now demonstrating to be right was actually wrong.)
There’s a huge gap between the party of Rubio and the party of Trump. I’m not sure the two are compatible, in fact. This is really a tale of two parties. But which one is the real Republican Party? I suspect the voters in Florida will tell us on Tuesday.
Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor at the Daily Caller and the author of “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @mattklewis.