Age Could Be an Advantage for Marco Rubio

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Rubio’s presidential announcement was impressive, but the fresh-faced upstart now faces a challenging road to the White House. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

The first thing I noticed was the font. When Marco Rubio brought supporters to Miami's Freedom Tower on Monday to announce he was running for president, the junior Senator from Florida also unveiled a new campaign logo. The letters were set in a slim typeface, atypical for the bold styles of presidential campaigns. And Rubio's name was printed in lowercase letters–like a text message or a poem by e.e. cummings.

The point, it seemed, was to show that Rubio is a different sort of candidate. And he is.

At 43 he's the youngest in the field although Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are 44 and 47 respectively. But Rubio's boyish features make him look far younger. Years ago, that may have been a definite disadvantage for a candidate. But in this political environment, at a time when candidates with the last names "Bush" and "Clinton" are the early front-runners, it could actually help him.

Many Americans got their first glimpse of Rubio in 2013 when he delivered the prime-time response to Obama's State of the Union address. Most people have forgotten what Rubio said, but his awkward, mid-speech lunge for a bottle of water went viral. Other pols might have just grabbed a bottle of Poland Spring like it was nothing. Rubio looked like he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Remarkably, it made him look endearing and unscripted. That could help him at election time.

Much like Obama before him, Rubio is likely to going to emphasize his youth and deflect any questions about his experience. In his speech on Monday he not so subtly chided Jeb Bush and Hillary Rodham-Clinton as candidates of "yesterday" and invoked John Kennedy, though not by name, touting his "new generation" of leadership. This is a smart move for the 43-year-old. And Rubio strategists are correct to note that he has more political experience than Obama did when he first ran for president. Rubio's background includes a stint as the Speaker of the House in the Florida's legislature, a good proving ground for a young pol. His tenure in the U.S. Senate has been modest in terms of accomplishments. But his attempt forge a compromise on immigration reform was serious and earned him respect in the chamber.

That attempt at compromise, however, may also be his undoing. Rubio came to Washington in 2011 as a darling of the Tea Party. He'd knocked off former Florida Governor Charlie Crist in a heated primary, largely by pounding him from the right. But immigration reform, a natural issue for a senator from West Miami, let alone one born to immigrant parents, became a galvanizing issue for Republicans. By 2011, the party had all but killed immigration reform and Rubio was forced to back away from his own bill—much as John McCain did in 2008.

The good and bad news for Rubio is that one of his rivals, Bush, has similar views on immigration. Bush seems to have inflamed the right even more perhaps because his description of illegal immigration as an act of "love." So far, the former Florida governor is dominating the more establishment wing of the party, while Walker, Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are devouring the party's right. As The New York Times's Nate Cohn, put it, Rubio has been boxed out like a basketball player.

But he still has breakout potential. He's a good campaigner. He could be the compromise candidate for all wings of the GOP. And while Rubio, a Cuban-American, isn't likely to convince most Latinos to switch parties, he could siphon off enough votes to help Republicans win in 2016. If Bush fades, Rubio could suddenly grab a bigger share of campaign contributions from Florida and help him snag votes from the rest of the country.

His secret weapon may wind up being his tax proposals. So far the Republican contest has been primarily defined by contempt for President Obama and well-worn calls for tax cuts and deregulation. By forming a more populist note on tax cuts, Rubio can distinguish himself from a crowded and competitive field. What the senator has in mind will almost certainly be a deficit expander, but it will at least have a middle and lower class tilt. He's likely to push big expansions of the Earned Income Tax Cut for lower income workers and dependents. It's a different approach than just chopping rates across the board. And it's not an entirely new idea. But it's new-ish. And that helps any new generation candidate.