It was early 2010. I was sitting at a Plant City, Florida, hotel ballroom with my college-age son awaiting the arrival of a U.S. Senate candidate named Marco Rubio. He was already down by double digits with a snowball’s chance in a Florida summer of overcoming the ever-popular (and ever-tanned) Charlie Crist for an open U.S. Senate seat. But my son was a political science major at the University of South Florida, and this was, after all, a political science lesson in persona.
The room was packed save for the six empty chairs at our table by the stage. Yes, there was a buzz. Then we realized the buzz was headed our way when Rubio was escorted to our table, sat down and introduced himself. There was no small talk. He was immediately earnest and interested in what we thought of the political season. The old reporter in me asked an open-ended question intended to allow him to talk so we could listen. And that’s when I knew there was something different about Marco Rubio.
He turned his head to begin answering my question before pivoting his entire posture to face my 22-year-old son. The rest of the time before his talk he spent engaging him about things important to a 22-year-old poli-sci student worried about a job and student loans and his future. A cynic might say that was just good retail politics. But the larger takeaway was the intensity of Rubio’s interest in, and understanding of, the hopes and aspirations of the millennial generation about to inherit an older generation’s burden of accumulated excess.
That’s why the New American Century theme Rubio framed at his announcement speech tonight at Miami’s Freedom Tower was no surprise. It naturally defines his political philosophy because it seems to spring so naturally from a personal philosophy that has been shaped both by his youth and his first-generation immigrant identity. And he spoke of this new century like he owned it already…“the time has come for our generation…” he said. It was personal in a way that connects with youth while at the same time encouraging – not alienating – older voters.
“Yesterday’s over. And we’re not going back.” It was a great applause line. It was a defining line to contrast the “old” politics of Clinton/Bush with the new vision he was casting. And it was also something neither his Republican nor potential Democrat opponents should miss. Rubio had just checked off a laundry list of policy points on the family, life, educational choice, global leadership, and human rights. Then came the pivot to elevate the conversation:
These are the things that we must do. But this election is not just about what laws we’re going to pass. This election is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be.
It was, dare I say, a ‘Clintonesque’ moment (as in William Jefferson, not Hillary Rodham). Can anyone hum Fleetwood Mac? He was laying on the shoulders of his generation a mantle of responsibility for their country’s future. The measure of his success will be to engage younger voters in that challenge, and to win the confidence of older voters that his is the right vision.
Marco Rubio has a compelling personal story about how, as the child of Cuban immigrants, he has realized the American Dream. His eyes moistened at the end of his speech as he drew a contrast with the temporary podium of his bartender father to the podium he now stood behind to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. It was as fine a political moment as it was personal.
And that’s just the point. Even in his own story he can translate the aspirations of an everyman into a broader vision for the future, and then delineate the steps to get there. Marco Rubio’s entrance to the GOP Primary just elevated the conversation. Will the others already in, and those who will follow, be able to speak in this new voice?
Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a messaging and media firm with offices in Florida and Washington, D.C.