Marco Rubio is a rock star. He’s young, he’s handsome, and he’s Hispanic. The Republican senator from Florida has plum committee assignments, dropped a book in the fall, and gave the State of the Union response. It is no secret that he is positioning himself as a 2016 presidential contender.
But in the midst of the latest government shutdown Rubio has been missing in action.
In contrast, his Senate colleague Ted Cruz has been front and center, leading the Republican “take no prisoners” strategy in the quest to defund Obamacare.
While Rubio was elected in part on the strength of the Tea Party, it is Cruz who has become the leader and the face of the Tea Party movement. By extension he has also become the leader of the Republican Party steering it to his preferences. Not a bad spot to be in for someone who also has presidential aspirations. There is no question where Cruz stands in the shutdown showdown and he’s not afraid to say it.
At the moment, Cruz is the dominant political voice in his party, but he doesn’t speak for all. There is a growing number of Republicans who don’t subscribe to the hostage-taking strategy and want to put an end as quickly as possible to the government shutdown. Most of these voices come from potential 2016 presidential contenders.
Govs. Jindal, Walker, and Christie have criticized the shutdown. So has Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Representative Peter King of New York. Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate who may run again, wrote an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal proposing some way out.
Marco Rubio? Silence.
If there is one thing the government shutdown has done, it has further highlighted the deep fissure within the Republican Party between the Tea Partiers and everyone else. But in neither of these two wings do we find Rubio.
The absence of Rubio is especially puzzling because he has been a leading voice in both wings. Rubio rose to power on the Tea Party wave of 2010 as a Sarah Palin-backed, Jim DeMint-supported darling who signed the pledge to repeal Obamacare.
So shouldn’t Rubio be leading the charge to keep the shutdown going until the Affordable car Act is wounded or killed? Or at the very least shouldn’t he be standing side by side with Cruz?
The answer is that Rubio has purposefully distanced himself from his Tea Party beginnings. He has sought to position himself as a moderate Republican or at least as a non-Tea Partier. A prime example of his turn is his leading role in immigration reform through the Senate Gang of Eight.
Rubio’s path to the presidency is focused more and more on how to win over a general electorate. In contrast, Cruz’s path to the presidency is one of winning the primary by throwing red meat at the base.
Rubio’s disappearance act is not accidental, it’s a strategic course of inaction he has chosen. While he does not want to cheer on the Tea Partiers he also doesn’t want to completely sever ties with those voters.
But an embrace of immigration reform and neglect of the government shutdown and the debt ceiling may not be enough to successfully broaden his appeal to Latinos and beyond.
The question is whether his ducking out will help him two years from now. He’s betting that the whole government shutdown drama will have blown over by then and no one will remember that he wasn’t on the scene.
It seems that Rubio is trying to be like the Great Houdini, a master of escape. Rubio is hoping that he can pull a disappearing act and escape from the political implications that will come from the government shutdown.
This is a risky path. His disappearance may backfire and end up painting him as a wishy-washy dodger. But, in the end, it’s a gamble he has decided to take. Rubio has set his sights on the presidency and for the short-term will pursue the course by laying low and disappearing from unpopular issues.