For some, Marco Rubio is the future of America’s Republican Party. Young, charismatic, and descended from Cuban immigrant parents, the junior Florida senator embodies the hopes of a new generation of conservatives eager to learn from the GOP’s 2012 election defeat, and keen to reach out to new demographics previously alienated by the party’s more extreme elements.
That is certainly the image that the man tipped as a frontrunner for the nomination as the Republicans’ 2016 presidential candidate presented in a speech at London’s Chatham House.
Ostensibly, this speech on “the Transatlantic Alliance” was a pep talk – given in Rubio’s capacity as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – in response to those who trumpet the decline of the “special relationship”, and of the US and UK’s world standing.
“Many look to the dysfunction of Washington and wonder how America could ever expect to lead the world when it can’t seem to get its own affairs in order,” said Senator Rubio in one of several relatively candid moments.
Paraphrasing Mark Twain, he insisted that “reports of our death are greatly exaggerated” and he vowed that “our finest hour as a nation – and as an alliance – is yet to come”. He repeated the word “optimistic” throughout.
Reaching this pinnacle, he said, will involve closer economic ties, continuing support for Nato, and greater co-operation on security. He added that “recent accusations regarding intelligence programs must not be allowed to poison our ability to work together”. And, dangling an economic carrot, he spoke of the US as on track for energy independence by 2035, of how these spoils could be shared with its allies, and how Europe can follow suit.
He spoke of the need to be “blunt about our differences with Vladimir Putin’s government [in Russia]”, of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s Cold War partnership, and of shared views of liberty and freedom, evoking memories of a time when the US and UK topped the world tree, and when the Republicans were a force to be reckoned with.
Any “dysfunction of Washington” was never more apparent than in the recent domestic political deadlock – driven by Republican stubbornness which forced the US fiscal shutdown, paralysing government and damaging the economy. Republicans found themselves the butt of plenty of jokes in the British media then, and in 2012 with presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s gaffe-ridden trip to the UK for the Olympic Games.
But has Senator Rubio spotted the chance to reach out to yet another demographic? In contrast to President Barack Obama’s sharp warning earlier this year that the US does not want Britain to quit the EU, Rubio said Britain’s role in Europe “should be a matter for the British people to decide”.
Later, he said that no other world opinion matters more than that of the UK in influencing US policymakers.
Although many Republicans see Senator Rubio as too far removed from traditional party values, his speech in London received a resounding round of applause. He seems to have a talent for making friends: now he just has to win over his own party.