Like any presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has strengths and weaknesses.
Sometimes they overlap. For instance, the 43-year-old is a gifted communicator, whether he is dissecting policy or telling stories. But he can also talk in circles, as when he tries to explain how he came to oppose his own immigration bill or how he wanted to help undocumented young people stay in this country and then criticized President Barack Obama for doing just that.
Yet in what will likely be a crowded field of perhaps a dozen or more 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls, Rubio has a great shot at finishing in one of the top three spots. He might even win the nomination and wind up facing off against Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
It’s not just because Rubio has youth and energy. Both of these qualities could provide a sharp contrast to Clinton, who will be 69 on Election Day. That’s the same age that Ronald Reagan was when he defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 despite warnings from liberals that Reagan was too old.
If Rubio is the nominee, Clinton might borrow Reagan’s 1984 quip and pledge not to “exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Now that Democrats could be backing a senior citizen instead of running against one, their argument could be that “69 is the new 39.”
Rubio got in the first dig at Clinton when, in announcing his candidacy from Freedom Tower in Miami, he defined the election as “a generational choice about what kind of country we will be.” Then came the zinger.
“Now just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday,” he told supporters. “Yesterday is over. And we are never going back.”
The generational appeal is strong messaging, and it should serve Rubio well — just like it did Bill Clinton when the baby boomer ran against World War II veterans in 1992 and 1996. Turnabout is fair play.
But the main reason that Rubio is sure to do well is because, while other presidential contenders try to convince voters that they can lead America, this son of Cuban immigrants understands the point of America.
In announcing his candidacy, Rubio warned that “our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake.” He noted that, in this country, “a collection of immigrants and exiles, of former slaves and refugees, together built the freest and most prosperous nation ever.” He said that America is a place of miracles shaped by those “who refused to accept” that people are “trapped by the circumstances of their birth.”
All elected officials should sing this song, but unfortunately very few of them know the words. Instead of exploring big themes, they play the small ball of partisan games and petty politics. Maybe they spend so much time around the rich, famous and powerful that they forget that the glue that holds everyday families together, even in tough times, is the faith that our children will one day have better jobs, higher pay and softer hands. This is the great hope of America, and it still endures.
Rubio seems to understand this concept not because he read it in a book but because he saw it growing up as the son of a bartender and a maid. And it will carry him far as he travels the country in the coming months.
It is Rubio’s appreciation of America as a mighty transformative force that will provide the sharpest contrast to Hillary Clinton 2.0, the latest power grab of the former first lady, former architect of proposed health care reform and former secretary of state.
When NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” recently lampooned Clinton, she was portrayed as cravenly looking into the camera and screaming: “Citizens, you will elect me! I will be your leader!” When you hear Clinton talk about her experiences and accomplishments, listen for the subliminal message: “You people owe me!”
Rubio comes from another place.
“I’m humbled by the realization that America doesn’t owe me anything,” he told supporters. “But I have a debt to America I must try to repay. This isn’t just the country where I was born; America’s literally the place that changed my family’s history.”
The message is all about gratitude. If it resonates, then a new generation has someone you need to meet.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.