On the surface, Florida would appear to be ground zero for the Republican Party in 2016: The state is home to two leading Republican candidates for president: Sen. Marco Rubio, the young Cuban-American tea party favorite, and former Gov. Jeb Bush, next in line in the Bush dynasty and major power broker in the Republican mainstream, who on Monday announced his candidacy. The GOP hasn’t won the key state in the last two presidential elections, and Bush and Rubio, it would appear, give the party a great chance to win the state and, by extension, the presidency.
But Florida’s fractious GOP politics suggest otherwise. Although the governor’s office and both state houses are firmly controlled by Republicans, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, and an even larger share of independents. The Florida Republican Party has become increasingly unpopular for refusing to fund health care or implement popular citizen amendments. Such internal dissention and frayed alliances may hobble the state GOP’s role in the upcoming national elections.
Similarly, the battle shaping up between Bush and Rubio highlights the deeper contradictions of a party that has been unable to govern effectively. Both endorse policies and programs that align poorly with increasingly progressive public opinion, and their contest reflects crippling internal divisions over social issues — a bigger-picture problem for which neither candidate appears to have a solution.
At the state level both have been enormously successful, in their own ways. Over the past 20 years, Bush has proven himself a skilled navigator of Florida political waters. His fluency in Spanish, years of experience in Latin America and Mexican-born wife, helped win support from a highly diverse Latino electorate. His family contacts in Washington and on Wall Street also have been helpful, and he capitalized on Cuban-American allegiances with Republicans, along with the emergent power of billionaire donors in and out of the state. In office, he was very effective at reaching his goals: He delivered $19 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy at the cost of public needs and services and radically transformed public education, initiating vouchers for private schools, charter schools, high-stakes testing and a war against the teachers’ union.
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants in south Florida, entered politics fresh out of law school at the University of Miami. At 27, he was elected to a two-year-term as city commissioner of West Miami, followed by eight years in the Florida House, where he was chosen to be speaker — the first Cuban-American to do so. In 2009 he ran for U.S. Senate and defeated Charlie Crist, the popular sitting Republican governor. Crist had angered the growing tea party by literally hugging Obama, who brought the state much needed stimulus funding; Rubio won election in the party backlash. Since then, Rubio has worked hard to gain national recognition. Although missteps like his awkwardly thirsty rebuttal to Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address erode his image, his youthful good looks, Cuban heritage and solidly conservative social and fiscal beliefs have gained the interest of party officials, pundits and donors. He has his own billionaire backer, Norman Braman, an auto dealer in Miami who has pledged $10 million to help him win the presidency.
But both candidates also have liabilities that are chipping away at their reputations on the national stage. Bush’s self-contradictory, multipart explanation of what he would have done differently from his older brother in Iraq sapped his credibility. Even worse is the long list of foreign policy advisers he has dredged up from brother George's ill-fated Iraq campaign, binding him ever closer to his dynastic family. He is also facing criticism for a passage from a book he wrote in 1995 that recommended shaming unwed mothers. It’s a nasty idea that won’t help win votes from women. His less-than-stellar performance in the polls and the recent upending of his campaign staff reportedly have made some of his donors wary.
Rubio, for his part, is fighting charges of poor money management, occasional misuse of party or campaign funds and misstatements about his family history. Thus far, Rubio has weathered such scandals fairly well and is polling even with Bush, but he is immature and too easily compared with Obama, another ambitious, first-term, minority senator who sought the presidency.
More importantly, both Bush and Rubio face the dual hazards of a party that has no answers for problems that are becoming increasingly urgent. Bush aptly defined the dilemma facing his party when he enigmatically stated that it would be necessary to lose primaries in order to win the general election: The path to nomination runs inevitably through the primaries, in which state party voters reflect politics far to the right of the general electorate. Mitt Romney’s inability to push right and then recapture the center during the 2012 presidential election doesn’t bode well for the next candidate to follow that strategy.
Thus, while both Bush and Rubio pitch themselves as candidates that can broaden Republican appeal to Latino voters and moderate independents, those same presumed assets pose problems for winning primary victories. Both undoubtedly will be haunted by concessions over immigration made to please the bigoted wing of the party. Rubio is likely to drive Bush even further to the right in the primaries. The latter’s recent provocative statements about raising the age for Social Security, reversing Obama’s changes in Cuba and a dramatic military response to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant underscore that trend.
And while Rubio’s speeches refer to tired, older-generation leadership, an implicit reference to the Bushes and his former mentor (Bush helped him gain state office and speakership of the Florida House, and ultimately a seat in the U.S. Senate), his own brand of economic austerity, social conservatism and foreign policy belligerence is not likely to appeal to general voters increasingly worried about climate, retirement and their children’s futures.
More broadly, the policy ideas of both the tea party and corporate mainstream Republicans will worsen, not ease, the social and economic problems that most Americans currently face. For example, they have no answers for the health care crisis that could explode if the Supreme Court abolishes subsidies in its forthcoming King v. Burwell decision.
Of course, the race won’t be decided soon, and neither the power of the Bush family and Jeb in particular, nor Rubio’s boyish charms, should be underestimated. But the struggles currently underway may signal the unhinging of a political party that, neglecting the needs and desires of the voters, governs only for the rich and does not know how to do much else.