With Newt Gingrich’s surge, the Republican presidential race is more uncertain than ever. But the party’s pick for vice president has for months seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Although he claims to have no interest in the job, Florida Senator Marco Rubio is still the most likely VP choice for any Republican nominee, especially Gingrich, who has mentioned Rubio specifically.
Rubio is young, bright, handsome and from a critical swing state that he carried in 2010 by nearly 20 points. Most important, he’s Hispanic. He doesn’t have to help Republicans win Hispanics outright, but merely cut into the Democrats’ mammoth advantage. The Obama campaign knows that if the president, who won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, can be held below 60 percent this time, he’s almost sure to lose.
But in truth, Rubio is not the ideal vice-presidential candidate to solve Republicans’ trouble with Hispanics. Cuban-Americans have a big voice in Florida politics (where they already vote Republican) but make up only 4 percent of Hispanics nationwide. Mexican-Americans make up 66 percent of Hispanics, and tapping their potential at the polls may determine the results in swing states such as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
There’s no evidence that a Cuban-American who opposes even the DREAM Act (which would create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who finish high school and join the military or attend college) will bring other Hispanics out to vote or get them to switch parties.
So Rubio sits atop the short list. This should have Republicans worried, and not just because Rubio arrived in the Senate less than a year ago and carries the risks of any rookie. He’s been scuffed up in two flaps this year that highlight the complexities of being a minority of an ethnic minority in a party that’s shooting itself in the foot with minorities.
First, the Washington Post reported in October that he “embellished” his background by falsely claiming throughout his political career that his parents fled Cuba after Fidel Castro’s Communist takeover in 1959. The article said Rubio’s parents in fact came from Cuba to Miami in 1956. At first glance, that might not seem like a big deal. And Rubio claimed there was no “functional difference” between the two dates in his heroic family story. “The essence of the story was not the date,” he told the Miami Herald.
Except that it was. Those Cubans who came to the U.S. in 1956 when Cuba, under Fulgencio Batista, was still a close American ally were economic immigrants like the millions of others who have arrived here seeking a better material life. Those who came after the 1959 revolution were political exiles. In the context of the Cuban-American experience, the “functional difference” is huge.
Rubio placed his family among the latter group when he emotionally told their story on the stump and in his campaign literature. This narrative was false, and it raises fundamental questions about his truthfulness.
Rubio’s friends and supporters in Miami’s Little Havana don’t care about the episode. But Hispanic economic immigrants could react differently if they see him as a pull-up-the-ladder guy. They have long envied and even resented political exiles because exiles are welcomed into the U.S. with open arms and allowed to settle here permanently. To learn that Rubio’s family was actually little different than the millions of immigrants seeking economic opportunity -- the same ones that Rubio and other Republicans now say deserve no “amnesty” -- might not go down so well.
War with Univision
It doesn’t help that the senator now seems to be at war with the most powerful force in Hispanic media -- Univision, which has the largest Spanish-language audience in the country. In July, Univision aired a story about the drug arrest 24 years ago of Rubio’s brother-in-law. It was a meaningless tabloid report with no impact on Rubio’s political standing. But the senator handled it badly.
His staff told reporters that Univision had offered to kill the story in exchange for Rubio appearing on the network’s Sunday show. Even if true, that hardly justified the next step. Rubio’s surrogates demanded that Univision’s president of news resign and that the Republican presidential candidates boycott the Jan. 29 Univision debate on the eve of the Florida primary. (Telemundo, owned by NBC, will sponsor a debate instead.)
The boycott will conveniently allow the presidential candidates to avoid being confronted by Univision’s lead news anchor, Jorge Ramos, a fierce advocate of immigration reform who is also wildly popular in the Hispanic community. Imagine if President Barack Obama was feuding with a combination of Bryant Gumbel, Al Sharpton and Oprah Winfrey. Might cost him a little with black voters.
None of this is likely to dissuade the eventual Republican nominee from picking Rubio if he thinks it will help him win the White House. But will it?
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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