The results of the November election told the Republican Party, among other things, that it had a major problem reaching Hispanic voters. In the presidential contest it lost the Latino vote by a 20%-80% margin with the trend going even further down. Among the sophisticated Republicans analysts it was there was a need immediately to begin to focus on this constituency or else the GOP would quickly become irrelevant; at least at the national level.
Aside from the usual brainstorming and high-level party confabs, the party leaders opted to publically showcase one of its raising stars, Senator Marco Rubio, a freshman from Florida, son of Cuban American immigrants, to deliver this year's Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union Address. In addition to his pedigree, Rubio was a 41 year, attractive personality who after two years in the Senate had already made a name for himself as loyal party member, albeit leaning clearly to the more right-wing, social conservative side of his party. Not an active Tea Party loyalist, he had gained notice—even after such a brief time– as someone to be taken seriously among the party rank and file.
His performance in the Republican response speech however was a bust. Without discussing the specifics of oneof the admittedly most challenging presentations to deliver–speaking to camera in response to an exciting live speech without having seen the text to which he was responding—Rubio came across as flat, at best. He clearly appeared not to be ready for prime time.
Like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal appearance in the same slot in 2009, Rubio went home having blown the chance. The bad reviews, however, did not affect Rubio, as my colleague Doug Bloomfield pointed out in his blog yesterday. Rubio jumped right back into the political flow and was found yesterday on his way to Israel and Jordan; on his second trip to Israel since his election and his first as member of an official joint congressional delegation (Codel). (His first trip was days after he was elected in 2010.)
On the other hand the Republican Party last week found itself right in the middle of an enormous partisan fight over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense (who will eventually be confirmed.) Aside from the substance of the Armed Services Committee fight over Hagel’s views on nuclear weapons, Iran, and Israel, it was the ugly fight that another Hispanic potential GOP star, Ted Cruz, created in the Committee and outside. Not only did Cruz, a veteran of six weeks in Washington create a major tumult in his questioning of Hagel, but his impugning the patriotism and loyalty of a Viet Nam veteran, double Bronze Star, Purple Heart recipient was truly over the top. As Frank Bruni wrote so clearly in his New York Times Sunday, op-ed column, Cruz represents a far more substantial challenge for the Republican Party than merely being an outspoken Tea Partyer favorite.
Cruz may have a following among some within the GOP but his behavior and conduct is so far out of line with how Washington conducts its business that whatever up-tick he will give right-wingers, quickly will be lost when it comes time for legislating. It also will not last very long as the Republican out-reach to Latino voters moves into gear for the 2014 congressional elections. It is also not evident to date that Cruz has any interest or sense about the need to be more consensual. The Republican Party now faces a major challenge among personalities while still trying to determine its own ideological direction.