He's young, he's charismatic, and he's got some fresh ideas — while posing very little threat to the ideological orthodoxy within his party.
Marco Rubio is what Republicans hope the future looks like
Florida Senator Marco Rubio is a presidential candidate Republicans can feel good about. He's young and relatively handsome; he has a compelling biography (his parents emigrated from Cuba to make a better life in America, with his father working as a hotel bartender and his mother working as a cashier and housekeeper) that he's spun into an optimistic stump speech; and he is, by most accounts, an extremely compelling public speaker.
He's also firmly in line with the Republican establishment on the issues — which sets him apart from some of the other candidates running for the 2016 nomination. He's best known for his break with the GOP base to support comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, but he's reversed his position and is vocally opposed to it now (unlike, say, Jeb Bush). He's hawkish on foreign policy and reliably conservative on social issues. And he's pushed some innovative reforms, notably on tax and education policy, but is clearly trying to appease traditional Republican tax-cutters.
In other words, Rubio is a fresh face who doesn't pose much of an ideological challenge to his party. From the standpoint of the Republican establishment, it would be great if the future of their party were fresh and forward-thinking while continuing to advocate its current stands on the issues.
But is 2016 too soon for the future? In Washington, Rubio's still seen as a little young and callow. It doesn't help that he's spent the past two years trying to distance himself from his only major legislative accomplishment, the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in 2013.
Rubio shares a support base with his fellow Floridian and former mentor Jeb Bush — the people who'd be most excited about Rubio in any other year are Bush backers in 2016. And Rubio's appeal to the GOP base beyond Florida is untested. So many political insiders assume he's running for the VP spot on the ticket.
But Rubio's likely to stay in the race for a while. Thanks to his foreign policy hawkishness, he's likely to get support from Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson — which could be enough to keep him in the race for a certain amount of time. And he's done well in polls since announcing the start of his campaign in April. It's possible that he's been underestimated by observers who've called him "the perfect second choice for GOP voters."
Marco Rubio has disowned his own 2013 immigration legislation
Marco Rubio is actually a pretty active senator on policy issues. But because he was elected during one of the most dysfunctional eras in congressional history, most of those policy proposals haven't gone anywhere.
The exception is the "Gang of Eight" comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June 2013. Rubio was one of the four original Republican authors of the bill, and he played a key role in getting it passed. (This New Yorker article, published just before the bill passed the Senate, is stuffed with extravagant Rubio praise from other senators.) He lent the project serious conservative credibility — which helped get 14 Senate Republicans to support the bill.
Rubio even made the rounds on conservative talk radio to defend the bill's path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. He hoped that even if conservatives couldn't be persuaded to support a bill that allowed unauthorized immigrants to become citizens, they could at least respect his convictions enough to neutralize their opposition.
That did not work, and the conservative backlash against Rubio was enough to scare House Republicans out of taking up the issue. It also forced Rubio to disown his own bill, along with the notion of "comprehensive immigration reform" — that is, one bill that would increase border security and enforcement, change the legal immigration process, and provide a way for unauthorized immigrants to become legal, all at once.
Rubio hasn't adopted a new plan for immigration. He's just replaced his old position with a placeholder: he says there shouldn't be any discussion of whether to legalize unauthorized immigrants until Americans feel the border has been secured. (As a policy matter, it's not clear that this is ever possible, since there's no agreement about what counts as "secure.") It's a way to tell Republicans what they want to hear — "secure the border first!" — without explicitly having to reject the idea of any legal status or citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
When it comes to President Obama's executive actions to protect millions of immigrants from deportation, Rubio is opposed, but he wouldn't go as far as some of his opponents. He has said that it's important not to take protections from people who already have them, all at once; instead, he'd just prohibit them from being able to renew those protections after two years, so the existing program would sunset. (He doesn't want the new programs Obama proposed last fall, which are currently being held up in court, to go forward.)
Marco Rubio's foreign policy: he's the biggest hawk in the GOP field
Other 2016 GOP presidential candidates — Rand Paul and (to a lesser extent) Ted Cruz — want to move the Republican Party away from the neoconservative foreign policy it embraced during the George W. Bush administration.
But Marco Rubio likes neoconservatism and foreign intervention just fine, thank you very much.
Biographically, this makes sense. Rubio is Cuban-American, and he started his career in a political establishment that hates the Castro regime and strongly opposes any attempt to soften US-Cuba relations. (Predictably, Rubio has been extremely critical toward President Obama's actions to roll back the Cuban embargo.) That's in line with the neoconservative view of the world, in which certain regimes are evil and it's the United States' responsibility to do all it can to weaken them (if not topple them entirely).
So Rubio has criticized Obama's diplomacy with Iran, saying he wouldn't accept any Iran deal that allowed the country to enrich any uranium whatsoever — which is tantamount to saying he wouldn't accept any deal at all. He's called for ground troops to be used against ISIS. His policy in the Middle East, he told Fox News in June, is "not nation-building" but rather "assisting them in building their nation" (which is generally what "nation-building" means). And he's made a point of showing support for Israel — he's made two visits so far, with another visit possibly coming as part of his presidential campaign. (That attention's paid off; according to one Israeli settler leader interviewed by BuzzFeed in May 2015, Rubio is the Republican candidate viewed most favorably by Israelis on the right.)
There's a lot of variation within the GOP primary field on foreign policy — not just in terms of how hawkish they are (with Rand Paul and Rubio representing the least and most hawkish extremes), but in terms of how much they know about foreign affairs and how central they want to make it to their campaigns. Rubio is trying to show off his foreign policy knowledge. He wants to prove his hawkery is justified by the realities of the world, but he also wants to come off more "commander-in-chief-ly" than some of his opponents, like Scott Walker, who are notably less well-informed.
Rubio is trying to innovate on taxes without upsetting GOP orthodoxy
On domestic policy, Marco Rubio is often associated with a group of Republican policy wonks called "reform conservatives," who want the party to get more flexible in its views toward tax and spending levels in order to help the middle class. (Rubio has frequently been advised by prominent reform conservatives Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru, and in his most recent book he credits the group with helping change his thinking on taxes.)
But Rubio isn't picking a fight with his party on economic policy in the same way that, say, Rand Paul is picking a fight with his party on civil liberties. Instead, Rubio is gaining credibility with reformers while still trying to appease orthodox conservatives.
Reform conservatives generally agree with traditional Republicans that cutting taxes is good, cutting spending is good, and taking money from higher earners to support lower earners is bad. But they think that sometimes the party needs to prioritize cutting taxes for the middle class over cutting them for the highest earners. As Rubio told the Wall Street Journal, "Marginal tax rates do matter, but doing them alone won’t be enough to reinvigorate the economy."
Rubio's most significant domestic policy proposal is a tax plan he wrote with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). It includes some top reform-conservative priorities, like a new child tax credit to encourage families to have children. This follows conservative principles of cutting taxes and supporting the traditional family, but it also favors lower earners — which traditionalists see as income redistribution. But the Rubio-Lee plan makes one big concession to traditional conservatives by eliminating the capital gains tax, which would favor the highest earners.
The combination of the two means that, as reform conservative Reihan Salam has said, the Rubio-Lee plan tries to "promise everything to everyone." As a result, the math just doesn't work out — estimates say the Rubio-Lee plan would take in $414 billion less in tax revenue per year. Supporters of the Rubio-Lee plan think that the economy would grow so much that the new income would make up the difference, but as Vox's Dylan Matthews has written, "to call this extremely optimistic would be an understatement."
Marco Rubio wants to use the market to make college more affordable
As a senator, Marco Rubio has been interested in education policy — particularly higher education. He's co-sponsored a couple of bipartisan bills and floated other proposals of his own.
Rubio wants to improve the higher education market, so that students have more information about colleges and can more easily pay loans. He's definitely concerned about college affordability. But rather than trying to increase government funding to fill the gap — or simply assuming that cheaper private colleges will fill it — he's trying to make students more informed and empowered consumers in the higher ed market.
- Rubio's been a Republican champion of the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act. The bill would allow high school students to see real data about how much alumni of a given college earn after they graduate. Rubio and other supporters argue this would give students better information about which colleges are worth the cost.
- Along with Democratic Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Rubio has proposed a bill whereby people would automatically pay their student loans by having a percentage taken out of their paychecks. (This is the way student loans work in other countries, including Britain and Australia.) Student loan delinquency has risen even during the recovery (while delinquency on other types of loans has gone down), and defaulting on a student loancan result in the government confiscating wages and years of ruined credit. Many experts believe making it easier to pay back loans based on income would protect borrowers from those dangers.
- He's also proposed a "student investment plan" where a private investor would pay a student's tuition, in exchange for the student paying a certain percent of his income for the 10 years after he graduates.
- Rubio's proposed changing the way colleges get accreditation. He believes that the current system of accreditation shuts out new approaches to higher education.
None of these proposals have become law, or even gathered much momentum within the GOP. Rubio's critics argue that he is unusually bad at getting bills passed, pointing to the 2013 immigration debacle. His supporters argue, persuasively, that it's not Rubio's fault he entered the Senate during a particularly dysfunctional time. Under the circumstances, they say, it's all the more impressive that Rubio's put forward some innovative bills, and reached across the aisle to do it.
Andrew Kelly of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (who has worked with Rubio on higher education issues) notes that legislators often focus on "very basic tweaks to the existing model that frankly, from where I sit, aren't going to change much." And Republicans have often struggled to talk about the issue. Rubio, according to Kelly, is willing to work on "important, forward-thinking ideas that not everybody has been eager to take up."
Rubio's quick rise has led people to assume he's just using the Senate as a stepping stone to the White House, and in some ways Rubio is less engaged in the Senate than others — in 2014, he was absent from more votes than any other senator, for example. But his work on higher education, as well as some other bipartisan efforts (with Cory Booker on expanding the wifi spectrum, for example) shows that he's at least somewhat committed to legislative work.
Rubio pays lip service to criminal justice reform, but he's still a drug warrior
Criminal justice, like tax policy and foreign affairs, is something the Republican Party is divided on right now. Many of Marco Rubio's competitors and potential competitors for the 2016 Republican nomination — Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie, for example — have firmly allied themselves with reformers who want to reduce incarceration rates and shorten criminal sentences. Crime isn't a central issue for Rubio, but when he has talked about it, he's been fairly supportive of the tough-on-crime policies of the past few decades.
Rubio has been vocally opposed to reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, for example. In October 2014, he wrote that "reform should not begin with careless weakening of drug laws that have done so much to help end the violence and mayhem that plagued American cities in prior decades." (He's also said that there is "no responsible way to recreationally use" marijuana.)
Rubio isn't necessarily opposed to any criminal justice reform — it's just that he lags behind many other Republicans (especially relatively young Republicans) in considering it. He contributed to a 2015 essay collection in which several candidates for president outlined reforms they wanted to make to the criminal justice system. But he wrote his essay on the need to reduce the number of federal crimes — which would benefit businesses trying to comply with regulations. It's the least controversial possible thing a Republican could say about the criminal justice system.
Some progressives have criticized Rubio for his connections to private prison companies; Rubio has received more than $40,000 dollars from leading prison corporation the GEO Group, more than any other senator. Those progressives tend to draw a direct line from Rubio's private prison donors to his own positions. But it looks like Rubio is trying to keep a relatively low profile on the issue.