Rubio’s Attempted Inoculation

Jonathan Chait takes a look at Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign message and just nails it: his implicit and sometimes explicit argument to Republicans is that his biography will help sell the GOP to people of limited means in a way that their policies cannot possibly do. In other words, he’ll inoculate them from the attacks for being the party of privilege they have richly earned. And then Chait offers a fascinating analogy:

In 2004, Democrats did not think they could frontally attack the Bush administration’s hawkish policies, so they wanted to use their candidate’s biography instead. That was the all-but-explicit message of John Kerry, who promised Democrats his military background would insulate him from attacks. Republicans who favor tax cuts for the rich, cuts in social benefits for working-class Americans, and deregulation of Wall Street face a similar dilemma. What these donors want is a candidate who will continue to advocate the fiscal and regulatory policies they crave, but can sell it to the public. Rubio is all but explicitly making the case for himself as the front man to make that sale.

As an early Kerry supporter in the 2004 cycle, it chronically bugged me that his campaign kept wanting to make his biography–or more accurately, the small portion of his biography that transpired in Vietnam–the centerpiece of his message. It became personal for me when the campaign all but buried the wonky “campaign book” I had contributed to in their eagerness to get people to read Douglas Brinkley’s book on Kerry’s war service. This approach crescendoed, of course, at the Democratic National Convention of 2004 when Kerry staffers stole and then fed to the candidate Max Cleland’s “reporting for duty” line. All this proved to be a set up, unfortunately, for the swift-boating of Kerry nine years ago this month. Once his war record was mendaciously called into question, so was everything else about him.

It makes you wonder if Rubio’s setting himself up for similar treatment, depending on what Jeb Bush’s Super-PAC has dug up about the man’s financial recklessness and his apparent dependence on the largess of billionaires and lobbyists. And they’ll probably use it, because despite all the “right to rise” branding, nobody’s going to identify Bush with the struggles of just plain folks.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.