At 44 years old, with a baby face and self-professed “love” of Tupac, Marco Rubio is often touted as the GOP’s best hope of appealing to younger voters. But on social issues, like LGBT rights and abortion, the Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate sounds less like a Gen Xer and more like a grandpa.
Take this interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) published last weekend: Rubio told host David Brody that he would reverse executive orders President Obama signed last year that ban discrimination against LGBT employees of federal contractors and the U.S. government. Never mind that nearly 70% of Americans favor laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in workplaces, housing and public accommodations, according to recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute. To Rubio, the executive action was purely about imposing “gender equality in restrooms.”
In the same interview, Rubio also said he would appoint Supreme Court justices who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion – two issues that a majority of millennials support. (Fifty-five percent of millennials surveyed in 2015 by the Public Religion Research Institute said that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 79% of millennials said they favored same-sex marriage in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.)
As Rubio put it, “there is no way that you can read that Constitution and deduce from it that there is constitutional right to an abortion, or a constitutional right to marry someone of the same sex.” One of the most important things the next president was going to do, he said, would be to appoint Supreme Court justices “who understand that the Constitution is not a living and breathing document.”
Considering the current presidential field, the remarks weren’t altogether shocking. Not one Republican candidate supports same-sex marriage and about half oppose allowing abortions even in cases of rape or incest.
Still, they were a little surprising for Rubio, who often plays up his youth on the campaign trail – or at least, tries to – stressing education reform, his own student loans, and the game Candy Crush.
This shtick doesn’t always go over well. During a campaign stop Thursday at Iowa State University, for example, Rubio drew tepid reactions from the 200 or so students in the audience, and seemed to forget whom it was he was speaking to. Rather than adjust his messaging for the crowd that won’t retire until 2060, Rubio stuck to his standard stump speech – regulatory reform, Medicare, Social Security solvency, and all.
On top of all this stiffness, Rubio’s CBN remarks might serve as a cudgel to undermine his efforts at appealing to younger voters and socially liberal donors – such as Paul Singer, the billionaire investor and staunch gay rights advocate who recently endorsed Rubio as the only candidate able to “navigate this complex primary process, and still be in a position to defeat” Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in a general election.
With each statement on social issues, the vision of Rubio as a fresh alternative to Clinton becomes an increasingly hard sell. That’s not just an image problem for Rubio; it’s an existential crisis for the GOP, which is facing a demographic slide. Republicans are literally dying off, and unless the party makes inroads with millennials – who could cast more ballots than baby boomers by 2020 – the GOP won’t survive.
“I think that the fact that someone with as extreme views as Marco Rubio is the new ‘establishment,’ acceptable choice speaks volumes about the state of the GOP today,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, an independent strategist who recently endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. “In his recent CBN interview, he voiced positions that are unacceptable to most Americans – not just a difference of opinion, but unacceptable to most Americans, particularly young Americans.”
“The fact is voters won’t consider you if they think you’re living in the past,” LaSalvia said, “no matter how young you are.”
Beyond raising red flags for the future of the GOP, Rubio’s CBN remarks also served as a striking reminder of the unique dynamics of this Republican primary battle, one where the traditional “moderate vs. conservative” theme has pretty much gone out the window.
“The old model is out,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told MSNBC. “What we have now are three people [Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and front-runner Donald Trump] trying to carve out the broadest portion of the electorate as possible.”
Aside from Trump’s ability to consistently defy the laws of political gravity, one of the principle narratives of this election so far has been the ongoing battle between Cruz and Rubio, the two candidates currently duking it out for second place – potentially first! – should Trump’s bubble ultimately burst.
Political watchers began seriously talking about a Cruz vs. Rubio primary at the beginning of the fall, when glazing eyes began to shift from a struggling Jeb Bush to his former protégé, Rubio, and Cruz’s sophisticated campaign operation became impossible to ignore. Almost always, this rivalry was framed as Cruz, “the conservative,” vs. Rubio, “the moderate,” until eventually, the candidates starting playing along themselves.
“You know, as I look at the race, historically, there have been two major lanes in the Republican primary. There’s been a moderate lane and a conservative lane,” Cruz told CNN in November. “I think Marco is certainly formidable in that [the moderate] lane. I think the Jeb campaign seems to view Marco as his biggest threat in the moderate lane. And so I think they’re going to slug it out for a while. ”
Cruz’s motivations for differentiating himself from Rubio, “the moderate,” made sense; the label connotes a willingness to compromise and generally applies to establishment Republicans – two things Cruz has sworn off of in an effort to appear the most ideologically pure. In other words, it’s an insult.
Less clear, however, was why the characterization stuck.
Besides Rubio’s support for a 2013 immigration reform package that created a pathway to citizenship, there is little that now separates the two 44-year-old, Cuban-American, tea party darlings – certainly, little to suggest that Rubio is the less conservative one. Yes, Rubio signed onto far more bills introduced by Democrats in the 113th Congress than Cruz, according to the government transparency website GovTrack.us. Rubio also has better relationships with his Capitol Hill colleagues than Cruz, who’s been called a “jackass” by former Speaker of the House John Boehner and more recently suffered an embarrassing rebuke on the Senate floor when he tried to get a voice vote on a doomed amendment to defund Planned Parenthood.
But Rubio has considerable conservative credentials of his own – indeed, a record that outright contradicts his image as the face of “a new generation of leadership.” For example, he has consistently voted against Democratic bills to avert government shutdowns and raise the debt ceiling; he’s raised doubts about whether climate change is “attributable to man-made activity”; his tax plan gives a huge gift to the very, very wealthy; he believes legalization of marijuana would be “bad for the country”; he has one of the most hawkish plans in the presidential field to defeat ISIS, including a call for troops on the ground and a no-fly zone; on abortion, he personally opposes terminating pregnancies even in cases of rape and incest; and as for immigration, Rubio no longer supports his 2013 comprehensive reform package, saying a piecemeal approach is the only option.
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Rubio himself said last month he could not see how Cruz’s position on immigration was “much different” from his own. The same could be said for his positions on almost everything else.
“Rubio is 100% conservative,” said Republican consultant and former George W. Bush administration aide Matt Mackowiak. “He just hasn’t gotten as much attention because he hasn’t used the same tactics that Cruz has used.”
It’s true, Rubio has never talked for 21-straight hours about the need to defund Obamacare or referred to fellow Republicans as “spineless jellyfish,” as Cruz has. But that’s more of a stylistic difference than a substantive one. A closer look shows that Rubio’s record is not all that different from Cruz’s, and hardly seems inconsistent with promises to roll back LGBT and reproductive rights.
The question is: Will those promises damage his outreach to younger, more moderate voters in the general election?
“It could,” Mackowiak said. “Though part of this depends on what the elections ends up being about. If it’s about a weak, stagnant economy, if it’s about terrorism or national security, I don’t know how much social issues will matter.”
Gregory Angelo, president of the pro-LGBT Log Cabin Republicans, agreed, though he said he found Rubio’s CBN interview “cause for concern.”
“This is shaping up right now to largely be a national security election,” Angelo said. “If that’s the priority rather than social issues, then Sen. Rubio is in a very strong position.”
Others believe Rubio’s comments could come back to haunt him, similar to what happened to former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“Sen. Rubio’s way out of touch culturally,” said LaSalvia. “Any candidate who thinks that they can ‘Etch A Sketch’ for the general election to try to appeal to a broader base of votes is kidding themselves. The ads are already being written.”
As for one millennial voter, Alex Smith, chairman of the College Republican National Committee, Rubio’s still very much on the table.
“Marco Rubio, like other Republicans, understands that a fresh, new approach to opening our economy for all of us will come from outside Washington,” she said. “He understands next generation voters will create a healthier economy by growing it naturally and organically from their local communities – not politically and artificially from Washington. So while some millennial voters may prefer a different stance on this issue or that issue, they can and will unite around a candidate that understands how to open bigger opportunities for all of us.”
Kailani Koenig and Alex Jaffe contributed to this report.