Viewpoints

Ruben Navarrette: Rubio is no bubble boy

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, is surrounded by members of an audience as he prepares for a television interview before a campaign event in Exeter, N.H.
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, is surrounded by members of an audience as he prepares for a television interview before a campaign event in Exeter, N.H. Associated Press

I hate to burst Chris Christie’s bubble, but he’s wrong about Marco Rubio having a soft and cushy path to this point. The Florida senator has walked through one minefield after another since arriving in the national spotlight.

Last week, Christie attacked Rubio as “the boy in the bubble,” insisting that the candidate who finished a strong third in Iowa is protected from the media by cautious handlers, won’t field tough questions and gives canned speeches. The New Jersey governor also thinks that Rubio doesn’t have the guts to stand by his positions on thorny issues such as immigration, as evidenced by the fact that the senator co-sponsored a reform bill with Democrats but later opposed it.

Christie insisted that he is different, and that he takes on critics from all corners.

First, hearing a 44-year-old Cuban-American senator called a “boy” really takes me back. I remember when then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is Mexican-American, was maligned by liberal bloggers as “torture boy” for allegedly authoring memos on enhanced interrogation – memos that were actually written by other officials in the George W. Bush administration. I wrote at the time that it was bad form – and at least racially insensitive if not full-blown racist – for anyone to refer to a grown man of color as a “boy.”

I don’t think Christie meant the jab in a racial way. He has enough respect for Hispanic voters that he brought New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez to the Garden State to help him campaign for re-election in 2013 in heavily Hispanic towns like Union City. He eventually won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote in that election.

What Christie was zeroing in on was Rubio’s youthfulness, and what he considers his opponent’s featherweight resume of accomplishments – in the Senate, and life in general.

Well, people who want to get things done shouldn’t run for the Senate. They should do what Christie did and run for governor. That’s where the action is.

But here’s one accomplishment: Rubio got 23 percent of the vote in Iowa, while Christie got less than 2 percent. That has to sting, and so naturally, Christie is lashing out.

As for backing away from a position on immigration, Christie knows all about that. He supported a Bush-style comprehensive reform plan before he opposed it. And he once foolishly suggested that we keep track of visa overstayers the way that FedEx tracks packages.

These days, you don’t hear Christie talking about any of that. This looks like backing away to me.

As for Rubio, his time on the national stage has been no fiesta. Young, smart, telegenic and well-spoken, he seems to inspire half the population and frighten the rest.

After he arrived in the Senate in January 2011, I must have written a dozen columns about him. They were all critical. He had a gift for ticking me off. He always seemed to do what many pundits considered the wrong thing. That’s because we either had sky-high expectations of what he should do, or extremely rigid notions of who he should be.

Right-wing Republicans had a hair trigger, and kept waiting for the self-described “son of exiles” to go native and open up the borders. A Rubio staffer once told me how, during the heated debate over the Senate bill, the Cuban-American got angry mail instructing him to “go back to Mexico.”

Meanwhile, on the left, many Democrats saw Rubio as a long-term threat and correctly assumed his ambition would take him way beyond Florida. So they attacked him as a sellout, someone who was working against the interests of fellow Hispanics. At speeches, he was often picketed by young Hispanic activists.

Rubio was seen as too white for Hispanics and too Hispanic for whites. He’s not alone. Welcome to the Hispanic experience in America.

And he’s never felt comfortable in the Senate, which is probably why his first term will be his last no matter what happens with his presidential bid.

I expect Christie, and other Republicans, to keep attacking Rubio. That’s politics. But no one can say that the senator has been in a protective bubble. That’s not true. And it’s not fair.

Pioneers take arrows. And, since he exploded onto the national stage, Rubio has taken more than his share.

Contact Ruben Navarrette at ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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