As Republicans await the free-for-all that the 2016 GOP primary has become, Republican voters will be thinking not only about which candidate adheres to the political and personal traits they are seeking but also to that candidate’s electability in a general election.
In such considerations, the candidate who usually rises to the top is Marco Rubio. Donald Trump, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are too extreme; Bush and Kasich are too boring; Christie is too hotheaded; and Carson is too inexperienced. Meanwhile, Rubio strikes a balance of charisma, good looks, and strong speaking skills, and his youth and Hispanic heritage help Republicans combat claims that they are the party of rich old white men.
I have seen it taken as almost universally given that Rubio is the best nominee to face Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders potentially) for the reasons listed above. However, in many ways the conventional wisdom on Rubio is overstated. While Rubio’s messaging – aimed at our children and a “new American century” – certainly coheres with his youthful image, Rubio comes across as the most insincere candidate on the Republican stage.
Of course, candidates will reverse positions for political expediency during election season – from Cruz’s rightward turn on foreign policy to Trump’s turns on pretty much every position imaginable – we have come to expect such behavior. And we have also come to expect empty promises from candidates during election season, for who really believes Christie would shoot down a Russian plane flying over Syria, or Cruz would institute a flat tax of 10% on individuals?
However, this is not the criticism I am leveling against Rubio (although I do believe he is partially guilty of both). More than anyone on the stage, Rubio comes off as too polished, like a slick salesman who will cheat you once you give him what he wants. Of course, Rubio’s U-turn on immigration and subsequent attacks on Cruz for a similar U-turn are calculated, but Rubio’s reversal seems much less believable than Cruz’s. In short, Marco Rubio does not come across as particularly principled both ideologically and personally (his rapid rise through the Florida House of Representatives to the Senate to presidential candidate has alienated a number of former allies in the dust, most notably Jeb Bush), and this appearance is fairly obvious to Republicans I have talked to.
Voters engage in a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to their relationships with politicians; on the one hand, if you ask them to talk about politics in general, they will decry the corruption, insincerity, hypocrisy, and elitism of politics in America. However, if you name specific members in their own party, they may like some and dislike others even while most of these actors engage in that behavior which they despise. The key for candidates is to gain the trust of voters by appearing to condemn these issues, as Cruz does in his criticisms of the “Washington cartel”, or by appearing to embody honesty, integrity, and conviction, as Carson does.
However, Rubio is transparent. He embodies the “empty suit” criticism frequently lobbied at those on Wall Street and Washington. None of this is to say that he would not make an effective candidate or president. But he is not the panacea for Republicans in 2016. If the 2016 primary season has been characterized by anything thus far, it has been a disgust with politics-as-usual, a disgust which has led to the rise of candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders. In such an environment, honesty is paramount, and while Rubio is an attractive option for Republicans, his on-stage persona is slightly too good to be true, and voters may very well see through it.