Why the Cuba Issue Will Not Help Marco Rubio Become President

At least publicly, Republicans have been nearly unanimous in their condemnation of the Obama administration's decision to normalize relations with Cuba. In and of itself this isn't surprising, given their party's long history of vigorous anti-communism and the fact that this move was taken by Barack Obama, which makes it wrong by definition. As I wrote over at the Post this morning, the presidential contenders in particular are trapped by their older voters, for whom the Cold War is a living thing, not something they read about in history class. For decades, opposition to communism was one of the key pillars of conservative identity, and so for them doing something that feels in any way like being nice to Castro is tantamount to raising taxes or changing your position on abortion.

But nobody was as outraged yesterday as the cherubic Marco Rubio:

"Absurd," the Republican called the Cuba plans during a spot on Fox News, one of more than a dozen television appearances he made Wednesday. "This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, based on a lie," he said in a special press conference.

[Jeb] Bush and several other likely White House contenders also weighed in Wednesday, blasting Obama's actions as more evidence of a weak and naive foreign policy. But with his wall-to-wall media presence, legislative threats and fiery written statement, Rubio clearly dominated the backlash. Even incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deferred to Rubio's leadership on the issue when asked about it.

The prevailing view, from that Politico article and others, is that this issue now allows Rubio to blast back into the spotlight and reinvigorate his presidential hopes, wounded as they were just a few days ago by the entry of his fellow Floridian Jeb Bush. But really?

It's natural that Rubio would be a GOP spokesperson on the issue. He's from Florida, where the greatest concentration of Cubans is. His parents are Cuban immigrants. In the upcoming Congress he'll be chairing the Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee that deals with the Americas. He's already promising to hold up anyone Obama tries to nominate to be ambassador to Cuba. And unlike (I suspect) many Republican officeholders who stopped caring all that much about Cuba a while ago, or have enough sense to realize that if the embargo hasn't worked in the last 54 years it's probably not going to work anytime soon, Rubio is sincerely outraged.

But I don't see how this is actually supposed to help him get to be president. In the primaries, all the candidates are going to oppose normalizing relations with Cuba. Even if most of the base Republican voters agree, I doubt that will be the top issue on too many of their lists, such that the deciding factor in their choice will be which candidate is most vociferously against normalization. That might be true of older Cuban-Americans in Florida, but so what? The primaries are a process that plays out in sequence, with one state's contest shaped by the ones that came before it, and even though Florida is relatively early in that process, there are a bunch of other states voting before it. In other words, it's just one state, and even there, Rubio is hardly guaranteed of anything.

And in the general election, his position on Cuba hurts him much more than it helps him. Most Americans favor restoring relations with Cuba and ending the embargo. Remarkably, even most Cuban-Americans in Florida do. The reason is generational replacement—the fiercely anti-Castro immigrant generation is aging and dying, and their children and grandchildren don't feel the same way as they do.

Marco Rubio does, however. On this issue, the senator is kind of like the teenager who wears a bow tie to school and agrees fervently with the senior citizens who are so fond of him that kids today have no respect, and ought to shut off that awful hip-hop and listen to some real music, like Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller.

"I don't care if 99 percent of people in polls disagree with my position," Rubio said yesterday. "This is my position, and I feel passionately about it." Which may be admirable in its way, but it doesn't get you any closer to being president. So no, the Cuba issue doesn't actually do Marco Rubio much good if that's his goal.

But I don't think he's going to run anyway. He's up for re-election to his Senate seat in 2016, so he'd have to give it up to run for president—and if he didn't get the nomination, he'd be left with nothing. He's only 43 years old, so he could run in 2020, 2024, or pretty much any time in the next quarter-century. He's a pretty good politician, but he's not so spectacularly skilled that he can reasonably look over the field and say, "I can take all of these bums." So it'd probably be best for him to sit it out. And when he does run, Cuba probably won't be an issue anymore.

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