Just a year or so ago, a young, smart, dynamic politician was poised to take over the Republican party. He was the future of the GOP, being compared to Ronald Reagan and showing his political chops with a rapid rise in visibility and influence as he charmed the Washington press corps. I speak, of course, about Paul Ryan, whose story shows how quickly one can go from being the Next Big Thing to being last year's next big thing. Ryan was hardly a disaster as a vice-presidential candidate, but while the 2012 presidential race certainly made his name familiar to most Americans, it probably flattened the rather steep trajectory he was on. And now, Ryan can only look on in frustration as Marco Rubio becomes the new Next Big Thing, fawned over by conservative media, delivering the Republican response to the upcoming State of the Union address (just as Ryan did two years ago), getting those Reagan comparisons, and gracing the cover of Time magazine under the headline, "The Republican Savior."
It's not hard to see why Republicans are so smitten. Rubio is relatively new in Washington, which makes him appealing to a party eager to distance itself from its recent defeats. He's good at playing the hip young fella, offering opinions on things like the relative merits of Biggie and Tupac (even if his knowledge of hip-hop seems stuck somewhere around, well, Biggie and Tupac). He's Latino, which makes him appealing to a party desperate to appeal to Latino voters. He's also getting lots of attention for leading the GOP effort to reform immigration with a plan to the center of where they've been in the past, yet he's also a doctrinaire Tea Partier on everything else, meaning he may be able to cultivate an image as a moderate while remaining a conservative ideologue. And unlike an unnerving number of the GOP's recent stars, he's able to count to 11 without removing a shoe.
But you can only be the Next Big Thing for so long, and there's really only one way to become your party's savior: win the White House. If immigration reform passes, Rubio will probably be given credit on the right. But what if, in 2014, Republicans do no better with Latino voters than they did in 2012? That might make them decide that moderating their stance was a waste of time. Or it might make them decide they need Rubio more than ever.