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Marco Rubio’s life raft

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Kathleen Parker
February 21, 2010
— Mar-co, Mar-co, Mar-co.

The nom du jour, if you somehow missed it, is Marco. As in Rubio, rising conservative star, not Polo.


All those other rising stars? So yesterday. Sarah? Scott who?

You’d think from all the print, chatter and buzz that Marco—the name fans seem to prefer—had charted the Silk Road. On a slightly smaller scale, he launched the annual CPAC parade of conservative stars Thursday with a rousing speech that brought giddy conservatives to their feet.


Rubio brought plenty of raw meat to the table, but that was the least of his charms. As speeches go, there wasn’t much new to chew on. Think “Groundhog Day” to a country music soundtrack.


But amid the expected was something fresh that will serve Republicans well in the coming months—and years. The traditional GOP is getting younger and less pale. Rubio, a tea party favorite who is challenging Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the U.S. Senate, may be the Republican Party’s Barack Obama.

More important, he is one of a new crop of young leaders who are first-generation Americans, sons and daughters of exiles, who can talk about the American Dream in a personal way. The 38-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, he is a natural pitchman for a new GOP. It doesn’t hurt that he is photogenic.


Rubio’s story about his hardworking parents—his father’s 16-hour days and his mom’s job as Kmart clerk—is familiar by now. And though the artifact that bad luck is a virtue is as stale as Marie Antoinette’s cake, Rubio is saved from death-by-cliche by an unlikely benefactor: Fidel Castro.


Rubio’s parents came to the America to escape Castro’s cruel tyranny. You don’t have to weep Glenn Beck tears—or descend into bellicosity with words such as “fascism” or “socialism”—when your life is a metaphor for the anti-Obama movement.


And Republicans don’t have to beat voters over the head with platitudes and promises. They don’t even have to invoke “exceptionalism,” code to liberals for wallpapering classrooms with the Ten Commandments.


All they have to do is let Rubio speak and remind voters why, as he put it, you don’t see Americans hopping rafts to seek refuge in other countries. Immigrants like his parents “clearly understand how different America is from the rest of the world. … What makes America great is not that we have more rich people than anybody else,” but that “there are dreams that are impossible everywhere else but are possible here.”


Rubio reminded his appreciative audience that those who seek our shores are from countries that have let government run the economy and determine which industries will be rewarded. The United States, at least theoretically, has chosen to let free markets, and thus individual liberty, thrive. The problem with government-run economies, he said, is that “the employee never becomes the employer; the small business can never compete with a big business.”


These are simple truths, but they resonate more when articulated by the voice of personal experience rather than read from the text of manifestos.


Rubio isn’t a perfect candidate despite his nearly instantaneous coronation. He waded into hyperbole bordering on falsehood when he said that only in America can one start a small business in the spare bedroom. Actually, small businesses are birthed every day on dirt floors in countries where a “spare bedroom” is where the cow sleeps.


Such forgivable slips notwithstanding, Rubio represents something important for a party for which diversity has meant hiring a mariachi band for the convention. And he is but one of several young rising Republican stars who share his political roots. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 38, and South Carolina Rep. Nikki Haley, also 38, both first-generation Indian-Americans, come to mind.


Jindal, unfortunately, made his national debut prematurely with his much-ridiculed response to President Obama’s 2009 address to Congress. But also like Rubio, he’s young and has decades to recover as he oversees Louisiana’s post-Katrina reconstruction.


Haley, who is running for governor against a fierce stable of seasoned, tenured men, is popular as a fiscally conservative accountant. Like Rubio, both Haley and Jindal can recount the American Dream story with passion born of been-there.


In a world where narrative drives politics, these are as good as it gets. As good, even, as being the son of a welfare mother and a Kenyan goat-herder. You might even say, they’re exceptional.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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