Marco Rubio, still just 44 years old, is a young and constitutionally sunny man in a party that is increasingly neither of those things, and so he has spent much of his political career serving as an avatar of the future to people who worship the past. You’ll often hear it said, by operatives and journalists, that Rubio is the most talented “political athlete” in the Republican primary field, and part of his athletic success has been to allow others to see in him whatever future they wish. Once he was the symbol of the tea party, then he became the party’s most visible moderate; he has been both an outsider and the Establishment’s program for the Republican future. To see Rubio on the stump is to realize, for all this athleticism, how specific his candidacy is, how inextricably tied it is to the promise of a Republican reconciliation with immigration. It is also to realize how much power that promise contains.
I saw Rubio on Tuesday, at a town hall he held in Keene, New Hampshire, one stop on what has been so far a remarkably low-profile campaign. It was midday, and even in a college town the room was filled with retirees. Rubio (easy humor, chinos) slipped comfortably into a role that he has long occupied — that of the dutiful son. He explained that he was running for president so that the aspirations his immigrant parents had for him and his siblings could be universal, and then, without much varnish or windup, he explained exactly how aspirational those hopes had been, his father having dropped out of school in Cuba at 9 and having worked until his 70s as a bartender behind a movable bar in a banquet hall, and his mother working as a hotel maid and a Kmart clerk. Rubio said that by any reasonable demographic calculus he (immigrant, working-class, Latino) ought to have been a Democrat. Then he told a story about living, for a couple of years as a child, in Las Vegas — a more X-rated Las Vegas then, without much for kids to do — and how his parents would take the kids for evening drives through the one “really nice” neighborhood nearby, encouraging them to imagine that they might at some time live here. One of the houses, Rubio mentioned to the retirees in Keene, had belonged to Liberace, the gaudiness sitting silent while the Rubio family car tooled past. “I don’t know why I remember that,” he said.
Rubio does not have the tenacious affinity for policy that Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton do, nor does he obviously display the capacity for ideological abstraction of Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders. But Rubio is a better noticer than the rest of the White House contenders, a more natural observer, and that quality both gives his candidacy a lived-in specificity and also makes him the presidential field’s most effective sentimentalist. In Keene he described his plan for making it harder for students to default on their loans, and he mentioned his own struggles to pay back his loans — how they often consumed a bigger portion of his household budget than his mortgage — which only ended when as a senator he got a big advance for his book. Rubio insisted that other countries that claim to be capitalist are in fact “corporatist” – he dwelled on this topic at length — not true free markets but closed oligarchic circles. He said he wanted to reorient the system of legal immigration to the United States so that it no longer favored those who had family in the U.S. already but those who could contribute something of value. Much of Rubio’s policy platform is fairly generic Republican stuff — deficits, regulatory excess, balanced budgets. But at the edges there is a subtle recasting of conservatism, so that it is more explicitly in service not of the family, nor the status quo, but of strivers like Rubio himself, possessed of immigrant awe.
Rubio’s national poll numbers, among Republican voters, have recently come in around 5 percent, and his campaign has been lambasted for being laconic. His advisers have insisted that Rubio’s quietness has been calculated, part of a strategy not to peak too early, but it seems almost certain that the calculation is a little more specific than that, a way of formalizing the hope that the nativism that has shaped the Republican primary so far will at some point dissipate. Comprehensive immigration reform was Rubio’s great, failed policy initiative as a senator, and it is the natural theme of his biography. But Rubio’s bound to immigration reform for another, more philosophical reason, too. In Keene he spoke of all the phone calls his Senate office got from people waiting in other countries — the appropriate papers filed with the local embassies — for their number to be called so that they might emigrate here, too. The great resonant honesty of Rubio’s politics is its decision that to acknowledge the global power of the American dream also requires that you work to give more global access to it.
What Rubio’s youth might do for a party that could use some connection to the future is plain enough. The more interesting and urgent question is what connection to the future Republican voters are really willing to make. What once promised to be an ideologically varied primary, a referendum on the future of the conservatism, looks in danger of collapsing into a depressing Republican sameness. Rand Paul has muted his libertarianism, and Chris Christie his managerial pragmatism; reform conservatism has had little traction; and even the more modest modernizing departure from the party line that Rubio once embodied has gained little traction. The variability in the primary so far has resided in whatever brand of crazy Donald Trump woke up as that day.
At Rubio’s event in Keene a phalanx of upbeat young volunteers spread across the room before the candidate himself arrived, offering plates of home-baked cookies to the senior citizens waiting for the speech. To consider Rubio is to worry that the party’s voters will never allow him to escape that same servile dynamic, that the only vision of the future conservatives will tolerate is one that looks comfortably like the past, and that this insistence might trap the party’s most dexterous candidate into a role that diminishes him — the dutiful son.