Should Democrats Be Afraid of Marco Rubio?

Ed Kilgore alerts us to this interesting Reuters story in which freshman senator Ted Cruz of Texas charges that Democrats were beating up on freshman senator Marco Rubio of Florida after the latter's State of the Union response because as a Latino Republican with such mad skillz, Rubio is a dire threat and they need to take him out now. I'll tell you what I think about that, but this also raises an interesting question about how we look at politicians on the other side and how difficult it can be to objectively assess their appeal to the public. Here's an excerpt:

Sen. Ted Cruz says some of the attacks on fellow Republican Sen. Marco Rubio by Democrats are motivated by race. Cruz said today the fact that Rubio is a Republican Latino poses a threat to political adversaries. "I think Democrats and the media are afraid of Marco Rubio because he is a smart, intelligent, conservative Hispanic. And they are looking for any excuse they can to attack him, because that threatens them," Cruz told reporters during a tour of a Texas gun manufacturing plant north of Austin. "Look, he took a drink of water in a speech. And it dominated the news for days with one network saying it was a career ender."

Cruz said the criticism of Rubio’s GOP response following last week’s State of the Union was about more than his being a promising young Republican. "It’s not just a promising Republican. I think the Democrats view Marco Rubio as a particular threat because of his background, his life story. I think it they believe it is in their interest to inflict as much damage as possible and blow things wildly out of proportion."

First of all, the water thing was mostly just something for people to make jokes about, and nobody with half a brain on either side thinks it really damaged Rubio's standing (also, some of us spent our time criticizing the substance of what Rubio said). But are Democrats really afraid of Rubio? My first response is no. But when you think about it, partisans are seldom afraid of anybody on the other side, at least not until it's too late. Your own biases make it easy to dismiss somebody with obvious gifts because as you watch him, you're apt to be saying to yourself that everything that comes out of his mouth is a load of crap. If you find them substantively unappealing, it can be hard to see what their appeal might be to a broad public. When a great candidate comes along, the response of the other side is usually, "C'mon—you're not really going to vote for this jerk, are you? Can't you see how shallow/dishonest/stupid/whatever he is?"

Republicans said that about Barack Obama through much of the 2008 election, taking much longer than they should have to realize that he was way better at this running for president thing than not only their candidate, but any candidate they had produced in a long time. The same was probably true of Bill Clinton; despite his obvious gifts, they dismissed him as "the failed governor of a small state" while he was busy whipping their butts, and to this day many of them believe George H.W. Bush lost only because he raised taxes. By the same token, when Democrats looked at George W. Bush they saw only a blithering idiot waging a losing battle with his native tongue, and failed to see that he was much cleverer than they realized and had excellent political instincts.

But back to Rubio. Cruz is right in one sense: the fact that he's Latino is important, but if anything it plays a bigger part in making Republicans enthusiastic about him than in making Democrats afraid of him. He seems to be a pretty smart guy and a pretty good politician, but he has the good fortune of coming along at a time when his party is desperate to appeal to Latino voters. Republicans are setting expectations for him incredibly high (Karl Rove called him "the best communicator since Ronald Reagan"), and it could be awfully hard for him to live up to them. He gives a pretty good speech (the SOTU response, which is always tough, notwithstanding), and he has a good story to tell about his immigrant parents, but then again so did Michael Dukakis. So on paper, Rubio looks like he could be a formidable candidate since he checks some interesting boxes, but you really never know until somebody starts tromping through the snow in Iowa and New Hampshire how they're going to perform in the big leagues. All of which means that right now Democrats are taking a good look at him. But afraid? Not yet.

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