The terrorist attack in Paris, and the increasingly deadly and complicated conflict in Syria (made even more complex by the recent shooting down of a Russian plane by the Turkish military after that plane flew into Turkish airspace) has led many observers to note that Republican primary voters are now looking for candidates who they think can best address these new security related challenges. This is another way of saying that, yet again, the GOP leadership is hoping, perhaps even anticipating, that the voters will move away from erratic, outsider frontrunners like Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
This development also is a reminder that despite the extremely large field of Republican candidates, there is nobody running who is thought of as a Republican expert on foreign policy. The one exception: Senator Lindsay Graham, but his campaign has not yet gotten off the ground. The rest of the field is made up of non-politicians, governors with little experience working on foreign policy and a handful of relatively junior US senators.
Mr.Rubio is more fluent in the language and names of international affairs than any of his GOP opponents, with the possible exception of Mr. Christie. However, most of his proposals are of the knee-jerk and hawkish variety.
The three candidates who are currently touted for their security and foreign policy credentials are New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who in a recent talk at the Council on Foreign Relations was able to speak fluently about foreign policy while citing September 11th almost as frequently as Rudy Giuliani circa 2007, Ted Cruz who serves on the Armed Services Committee, and Marco Rubio, who began his tenure in the Senate in 2011 and servers on the Foreign Relations committee. In most years, these candidates would be criticized for their lack of foreign policy experience, but this year they are the best the GOP has to offer.
Mr. Rubio’s candidacy, including his position as one of the leading GOP voices on foreign policy, has followed a notable pattern in recent months. Before every debate excitement builds around him as observers anticipate a strong debate performance. Thus far, he has not disappointed, but he has also not been able to convert his strong debates into enduring strength in the polls. Most surveys show Rubio with between 10-15 percent of the vote, in a respectable third place.
Ironically, the Republican leadership sought fewer debates in this primary season. In 2012, there were so many debates that many Republican leaders believed they became a distraction and prolonged the lost cause candidacies of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. The number of debates in 2012 was clearly excessive, but a few more debates between now and Iowa would be very helpful for Marco Rubio, as well as for a Republican leadership that increasingly sees the Florida Senator as the best hope for the their party against Hillary Clinton.
A potential Rubio-Clinton general election would be an exciting race. A Republican ticket led by Mr. Rubio would provide a stark generational contrast to Ms. Clinton, and could carry Florida, the largest swing state. Mr. Rubio would also try to frame his opponent as a political insider who has lived in the privileged cocoon of high office for almost thirty years now, while he has struggled with the same economic realities that haunt many Americans. Additionally, Mr. Rubio, through retelling his own personal experience, might move away from their harmful anti-immigrant stances.
Senator Rubio made both of these points very clearly during the debates. In the first debate he asked “How is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck…How is she gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.” In the second debate he eloquently explained how his immigrant roots led him to the GOP. “My grandfather instilled in me the belief that I was blessed to live in the one society in all of human history where even I, the son of a bartender and a maid, could aspire to have anything, and be anything that I was willing to work hard to achieve. But he taught me that in Spanish.” That kind of hyperbole is why Mr. Rubio might be a very attractive candidate.
It is also why it is easy to overlook the reality that Mr. Rubio has really done nothing in his professional life other than run for office, will be finishing his first term in the Senate at the time of the 2016 election, and has an understanding of foreign policy that is, on balance, superficial. Republican critics of the current administration might be a little wary of politicians who fit that general description.
Nonetheless, Mr.Rubio is more fluent in the language and names of international affairs than any of his GOP opponents, with the possible exception of Mr. Christie. However, most of his proposals are of the knee-jerk and hawkish variety. Listening to Mr. Rubio talk, one gets the sense that if he were asked to recommend a good Chinese restaurant, he would say that Obama is weak and nobody respects the US anymore. That degree of simplicity may work when on a stage with Dr. Carson, Mr. Trump, Mike Huckabee and the rest of the GOP cast of candidates, but could quickly lead Mr. Rubio into trouble when contrasted with the knowledgeable, experienced and relatively hawkish Hillary Clinton.
Even critics of Ms. Clinton recognize that there is no candidate running for President who approaches her knowledge of foreign policy. She is able to discuss the problems facing individual countries, regions of the world and individual leaders in far greater detail than any of her competitors from either party. While Republican critics will argue that Ms. Clinton handled Benghazi poorly, recklessly used her personal email for government business while she was Secretary of State, or is too closely tied to President Obama’s foreign policy, nobody can plausibly argue that she does not have a strong grasp on the issues and challenges facing the US.
The problem this creates for Mr. Rubio is that while Ms. Clinton is a consummate foreign policy insider, Mr. Rubio is an aspiring one. His ideas are well within the foreign policy mainstream; and in some cases not that different from Ms. Clinton’s. Senator Rubio does not propose different or radical ideas like Rand Paul might, is not the kind of candidate who can successfully distract attention from rigorous attention to any issues like Mr. Trump or Dr. Carson can. Rather, a big part of Mr. Rubio’s campaign appeal thus far is his supposed expertise on foreign policy. It is hard to imagine that reputation remaining, particularly in the eyes of voters who are not already GOP loyalists, over the course of a six month contest with Ms. Clinton. Senator Rubio may yet be the strongest general election candidate the GOP could run, but it is not because of his alleged foreign policy bona fides.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell