SAN DIEGO — Here’s a thought that Republicans should find as refreshing as a cool drink of water: Marco Rubio drives liberals crazy.
The Florida senator had an awkward moment while giving the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Rubio had just taped his remarks in Spanish, before giving his speech live in English. This marked the first time someone had given the response in two languages. So he was doing double duty. Naturally, his throat got parched, and he reached for a bottle of water. It was human and funny.
Yet, while Rubio laughed off the incident in media interviews the next day, liberals won’t let it go. It’s all they’re talking about, and this gives away how much they fear the guy.
The way those on the left react to Rubio – a possible 2016 presidential hopeful – goes beyond the resentment they feel toward Latinos who embrace conservatism. Those folks are always an annoyance to the left, which says it believes in freedom of expression – at least in theory. But in practice, the only thing it wants to hear minorities express is a full-throated allegiance to liberalism and the Democratic Party. After all, where would all these high-achieving minorities be without the generous support of liberals for life-altering programs such as affirmative action?
Yet in the case of Rubio, the usual hostility toward Hispanic Republicans seems to be only the starting point. Marco isn’t just defiant. He’s dangerous.
Take it from former White House adviser Van Jones. During an appearance on CNN, Jones said that Democrats “dodged a bullet” when Rubio took that sip of water.
“People can chuckle today,” Jones said of those on the left. “They’re going to be worried about this guy tomorrow.”
No doubt. What Democrats need to worry about is that it won’t be so easy to portray this Cuban-American son of a bartender and hotel maid as a symbol of privilege. Many middle-class voters can identify with Rubio’s journey, and feel good about the fact that the American Dream is alive and well. And, if Rubio does run for president, the problem that plagued Mitt Romney – i.e., his inability to relate to everyday Americans – probably won’t be issue. Not only that, the 41-year-old is an attractive candidate and an excellent communicator.
“Rubio is dangerous for Democrats,” Jones said. “I’m so glad we’re talking about him and that we’re joking about him because right when he reached for that water bottle, he was reaching an emotional part of the speech which he stepped on.”
Jones centered on the last 90 seconds of Rubio’s remarks, which he said were extremely powerful. As he put it, Rubio “is to the heart what Paul Ryan is to the head. . . . This man can connect emotionally.”
Connecting was what Rubio’s remarks were all about. In focus groups, voters of all colors and backgrounds said that they could relate to Rubio, and felt he understands their fear and frustration over a fragile economy, a weak job market, and a national debt of more than $16 trillion. This was a message Rubio hit hard during his remarks.
“Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” he said. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors – hard-working middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They need a plan to grow the middle class.”
And what about Rubio’s ability to connect with that one group that can make or break the GOP’s efforts to reach out to Hispanics – Mexican-Americans in the Southwest?
Let’s see. Rubio’s parents were Spanish-speaking immigrants (not refugees, as with many other Cubans who come to the United States). They worked hard in menial jobs and emphasized education as the way for their children to live out their dreams. Rubio entered politics, challenged the power structure as an underdog and triumphed against long odds. Sound familiar?
Now, in the Senate, he is scolding fellow Republicans for taking a tone on immigration that has been intolerant, insensitive and inconsistent with conservative principles. And despite resistance from the radical fringe of his party, he is standing his ground – and communicating his message, not just in English but also in perfect Spanish.
Oh dear. It’s enough to drive Democrats to drink.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.