Marco Rubio: Same ship, different figurehead?

The GOP chooses a fresh face to deliver a new message

Same ship, different figurehead?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Down a flight of stairs, past a burly bouncer with a guest list, a crowd of twentysomethings nursed craft beers and whisky sodas at an underground bar near the Capitol. The host was Buzzfeed, a website that traffics in pop culture and Internet memes like “10 Tips for Perfecting the Music Section of Your Online Dating Profile,” and “The ‘Unflattering’ Photos Beyoncé’s Publicist Doesn’t Want You to See.”

At the far end of the bar, behind a huddle of TV cameras and flashes of iPhones, the website’s editor interviewed Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida.

A week later, Rubio, a 41-year-old Cuban-American, delivered the nationally televised Republican response to President Barack Obama’s state of the union speech, one of the highest-profile assignments for a U.S. lawmaker. (Two years after being tapped for the same task, congressman Paul Ryan was the GOP vice-presidential nominee.) But on this evening in early February, Rubio was meditating on the relative merits of the deceased rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. (“Tupac’s lyrics were probably more insightful”), comparing gangsta rap to journalism (“A lot,” he mused, was “reporting about what life was like in South Central L.A.”), and defending his view that Miami rapper Pitbull is no poet (“He largely caters to a party audience,” Rubio declared, impressing the crowd by referring to Pitbull by his given name, Armando).

Welcome to the Republican party, post-Obama re-election and post-overwhelming loss of the Latino vote.

When House Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell chose Rubio to give the response to the President’s speech, they called him “one of our party’s most dynamic and inspiring leaders.” For the first time, the GOP response was delivered in English and Spanish.

But as the party leadership unfurls Rubio like a giant flag, the question is whether the rank and file will rally around him. Are Republicans ready for the new Republican party?

Plenty aren’t, and a civil war is brewing.

Rubio’s most substantive move in the Senate has been to co-author a bipartisan immigration reform proposal that would include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.—an effort to make nice with Latino voters. “It’s hard to get someone to listen if they think you are going to deport their grandmother,” Rubio explained to Buzzfeed. But he admitted it’s a “heavy lift” to sell his own party, with its fixation on border security and an aversion to anything that smacks of “amnesty” for “illegal aliens.”

A heavy lift, indeed. “Amazingly naive” and “nuts,” was the reaction of fellow Republican senator David Vitter of Louisiana to the immigration plan proposed in January by eight senators, including Rubio. Polls suggest most Republicans oppose a path to citizenship. Right-wing commentator Ann Coulter slammed the reforms as a “plan to oblivion for the GOP.” In California, she added, “a majority of all Hispanic births are [to illegal immigrants]. That’s a lot of Democratic voters coming.”

The gamble on Rubio and immigration is just one way Republican leaders are trying to reboot the party’s policies, image and strategy in the wake of Obama’s re-election. It’s a wide-ranging refurbishment after a race in which presidential candidates sought to one-up each other in conservative ideology. To some, the party veered too far off-message. Bobby Jindal, the young Indo-American governor of Louisiana, has said the Republicans have to “stop being the stupid party” and “being simplistic.”

On the same day Rubio hit the bar in Washington, House majority leader Eric Cantor gave a speech entitled “Making Life Work,” explaining that the party—lately focused on fiscal issues—had to emphasize something other than spending cuts. He called for more federal spending on medical research and more visas for foreign graduates of U.S. colleges in the maths and sciences.

Meanwhile, even Fox News, the pro-Republican news network—whose ratings and credibility have suffered recently—started shedding some of its brasher voices this month: Sarah Palin’s contract was not renewed. Dick Morris, the consultant who used his perch on the network to predict a “landslide” victory for Romney, was also dropped. Morris, who once advised Bill Clinton before moving to the right and authoring books with titles like Revolt!: How to Defeat Obama and Repeal His Socialist Programs, now says he wants to help move the party to “the political centre.”

The money men, too, have started their own overhaul. Karl Rove, the strategist who guided George W. Bush to victory, is attempting to use his fundraising operation, American Crossroads, to purge the GOP of candidates he deems “disastrous.” His newly launched “Conservative Victory Project” aims to raise tens of millions of dollars to weed out candidates such as Republican Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” cost the party a Senate seat in Missouri, and Richard Mourdock, whose comment about rape pregnancies being “God’s will” cost it a Senate seat in Indiana.

But the backlash against Rove from the Tea Party wing of the GOP has been quick and bitter: “Bring it on, doughboy,” said conservative radio host Mark Levin. “We’re ready.” Donald Trump, whose political causes have included questioning Obama’s birth certificate, tweeted that Rove is a “total loser.” When a spokesman for Rove’s group called a conservative commentator a “hater” last week, it was the last straw. The far-right wing of the party was enraged. More than two dozen conservative leaders turned their wrath on the spokesman, then on Rove.“You obviously mean to have a war with conservatives and the Tea Party,” they wrote to Rove, “Let it start here.” Signatories included the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, Jenny Beth Martin, Tony Perkins of the socially conservative Family Research Council, and Ginni Thomas, wife of the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas.

Meanwhile, as they watch the spectacle unfold, Democrats were barely containing their glee.

“Grab the popcorn,” tweeted David Plouffe, Obama’s top political strategist. “Pop a beer, sit back and enjoy this goat rodeo.”

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