President Barack Obama will probably give his wife and daughters some nice presents for Christmas. But he saved the best gift for Marco Rubio.
It’s called resurrection. Last week, the 43-year-old freshman senator from Florida – who has acknowledged that he is thinking about running for president in 2016 – appeared to have been pushed out of the race by fellow Floridian Jeb Bush. There didn’t seem to be much room for Rubio in the GOP field or the Republican fundraising circuit once Bush – a popular two-term Florida governor and GOP establishment darling – announced that he was considering a bid for the White House.
But just 24 hours later, thanks to Obama’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, the whole world changed. This historic development complicates the road ahead for Bush while propelling Rubio into a great spot from which to run for the nomination.
It’s not just because Rubio is the center of attention in the political world right now, having done more than a dozen interviews and appeared on several Sunday morning political shows in the last few days.
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It’s because – like Obama on race relations – Rubio seems uniquely qualified to address the topic of relations with Cuba. As the son of Cuban refugees who came to the United States before Fidel Castro took power in 1959, he is personally invested in the subject matter. Voters like candidates with passion, purpose and principle. And, on this issue, Rubio has all three.
When Obama made his announcement, Rubio came out swinging. Besides saying the new policy was part of the Obama administration’s “long record of coddling dictators and tyrants,” the senator said it was also “at a minimum naive, and perhaps even truly counterproductive to the future of democracy in the region.”
This kind of strong rhetoric is exactly what the Cuban American lobby – which is fervently anti-Castro – wanted to hear, and it sets the bar high for other GOP hopefuls who had been hoping to woo that constituency.
For Obama, this is about making political mischief. Just because he can’t run for president again doesn’t mean that he can’t have a little fun by using executive power to meddle in the 2016 race.
Obama has already divided the opposition on immigration, where the faction of the GOP that favors immigration reform because big business wants it is battling with tea party and other nativist elements that fear any change in our immigration laws will only speed up the Latinization of the United States.
Likewise, on Cuba, the GOP has long been divided between those business interests that would like to invest in the island, and the Cuban American lobby that wants to preserve the embargo and will punish any elected official who tries to soften relations with the Castro regime. Obama’s new policy – which includes expanding trade, making it easier to travel to Cuba, setting up a U.S. embassy in Havana, etc. – widens this divide.
With the exception of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who favors Obama’s approach and who has already found himself in a sharp-elbowed Twitter skirmish with Rubio, most of the Republican field is likely to line up with those Cuban Americans who think the president’s course is foolish, dangerous and harmful to Cuban dissidents on the island who are battling the same regime with which Obama wants to normalize relations.
Bush called the policy change an “ill-advised move.” But this moderate and muted response is a far cry from the fire-breathing coming from Rubio, and Cuban Americans likely took note. If this keeps up, contributions from South Florida that might have gone to Bush will find their way to Rubio instead.
Here is Bush’s dilemma on Cuba: As the GOP establishment’s leading contender, he would draw much of his strength in the presidential field from his ability to raise tens of millions of dollars on Wall Street and from corporate interests around the country. These are the folks who run companies that one day want to set up hotels, restaurants, construction firms and other businesses in Cuba. At the very least, they look forward to doing a significant amount of trade on the island.
No wonder Bush’s response to Obama’s policy change on Cuba was so tame. He can’t go as far as his Cuban American supporters would like without alienating corporate donors. What a pickle.
On the other hand, Rubio can go all the way. And, thanks to the new direction set by Obama, he just might.
Contact Ruben Navarrette at firstname.lastname@example.org.