Commentary: Marco Rubio as GOP's hope and change candidate

The Kansas City StarJune 25, 2012 

Meet the GOP candidate for hope and change.

Just not for the 2012 elections, and maybe not even 2016.

Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, has been bantered about as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney for months now. Romney finally conceded that Rubio was being vetted. But don’t take that as an endorsement, or even the truth.

Rubio likely won’t be on the ticket. Blame it on the GOP’s Sarah Palin hangover. Too much fear of a young, dynamic yet unproven candidate lingers.

And that isn’t a bad thing. Not for Rubio, the GOP and politics in general. If the GOP is to ever regain some of its moderate views, surprisingly, Rubio could be a factor — if he so chooses. The evidence is in Rubio’s just-released autobiography, “An American Son.”

At 41, Rubio is a tad young to be writing of his life, a point he concedes. Much of the book concerns his early influences and the struggles of his Cuban immigrant parents and grandparents to assimilate in America, a classic story.

Although he might be a darling of the tea party faction, Rubio’s background prepped him to be a moderate, a politician able to understand a wide range of opinions and experiences.

For example, he did not grow up exclusively among family in Miami, surrounded by other Cuban exiles. He spent some of his early school years in Las Vegas, where he was often assumed to be Mexican-American and was bussed to a school in a predominantly black neighborhood. After the family returned to Miami, he writes, he felt most comfortable with African-American students, not with many of his fellow Cuban-Americans. He still prefers hip-hop music.

Rubio attended his first year of college on a football scholarship in a rural Northwest Missouri town filled with “the nicest people I have ever met.”

And it was a teenaged Rubio who called his own father a scab for breaking a union strike. Yes, that’s right.

Without a formal education, his father struggled periodically to find work. He tried and failed at many small businesses and spent much of his life as a bartender. When the family lived in Vegas, Rubio’s father was a member of a union, one that went on strike.

He writes of knowing that his father was forced to accept lower pay and fewer benefits. And of knowing that it was the workers who made the hotel its profits, without fairly sharing in them. Things got so bad for the Rubios during the strike that they accepted government surplus cheese and peanut butter from the union hall.

Elsewhere in the memoir, Rubio reveals that his brother-in-law served time on drug charges, leaving his parents to help raise grandchildren when they were in their early 70s. Rubio gratefully and repeatedly acknowledges his relative privilege, the strength of his family and his father’s selflessness. He knows that other young people suffered more than he because they didn’t have such bonds.

Rubio was initially drawn to Democrats during then-Sen. Edward Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination against Jimmy Carter. He became Republican under this beloved grandfather’s influence. But “Papa” revered Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Years later, Rubio’s immersion into the nitty-gritty of politics would come campaigning for Bob Dole, namesake of a political institute at the University of Kansas established to restore bipartisanship.

Children of immigrants often fulfill not only their own ambitions, but also carry the dashed aspirations of others before them. When a parent has risked everything — livelihood, social status and ties to home and family — to emigrate, who are you as the offspring to screw up the opportunities of America?

Hence, the book’s title: “An American Son.”

Rubio’s challenge as a politician will be to draw strength and inspiration from his family’s passage to America to unite his fellow citizens for the common good, rather than to serve only factional interests, as his party currently is so bent on doing.

Will Rubio be able to see and work for the needs of all of America’s sons and daughters? If so, he may represent his party’s brightest future.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service