Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio: Obama Wannabes

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio: Obama Wannabes
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To Marco Rubio, President Obama is dangerously naïve when it comes to foreign policy, especially as it relates to Cuba. Rand Paul sees Obama as a big-government president who thinks he is a king, eschewing the Constitution in favor of his own rules. And to Ted Cruz, well, the president is something of a lawless menace with wobbly knees.

These three ambitious Republicans all have their gripes with this president. But really, they want to be him. And over the next several weeks and months, they will try to demonstrate why, even as first-term senators, they can do the job better than he can.

For this group of legislators interested in running for president in 2016, Barack Obama may serve as both an anathema and an inspiration.

Just a couple of years into his first Senate term, the now-president ran as a Washington outsider and won. In some ways, the success of his campaign opened a door for other upper chamber freshmen eyeing the White House — a lesson in seizing a political moment after having spent enough time in Washington to gain some national recognition, but not so much as to become synonymous with its problems.

But the perceived failures of his tenure may have closed that door to Republican first-term senators plotting a similar trajectory. From health care to foreign policy and most everything in between, GOP opposition to this president is often rooted in his lack of managerial and executive experience.

For some Republicans, opting to go down that road with a nominee may be considered hypocritical, if not a mistake. And as the party looks to the states as models of democracy, a senator may not make much sense. That’s why there is so much cheering among Republicans, even by some in the Senate, for governors, people who have run more than campaigns.

“There has always been a tendency on the part of leadership and donors and primary voters to support somebody who has a background as a strong executive. Folks outside of Washington who value the power given back to the states … that is just something embedded in a lot of Republicans’ world view,” says Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist who was the spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

For the freshmen senators thinking about a White House run, “The focus ought to be on countering what were the president’s biggest flaws exposed as a result of only being a first-term senator,” Madden says.

With signs of an improving economy but escalating national security threats, these senators point to foreign policy as a way to stand out from the pack of governors and showcase expertise.

“Jimmy Carter was a governor and he was an epic disaster,” Cruz told RealClearPolitics outside the Senate chamber. “At a time where national security is a major concern, voters have tended to look to candidates with experience in foreign policy with an ability to take on the foreign policy mistakes of the current administration and to outline a new and better direction for the country. And that is an issue set that does not tend to favor the governors.”

Rubio agrees, and recently took a not-so-veiled-swipe at possible competitors who are making overseas missions to bone up. “Taking a trip to some foreign city for two days does not make you Henry Kissinger,” Rubio said at a presidential-like forum in Palm Springs, Calif., over the weekend that featured the three senators.

Foreign policy dominated that debate, which was moderated by ABC and took place during a donor retreat sponsored by Charles and David Koch, and exposed contrasts within the group of legislators and the party.

Rubio and Cruz were highly skeptical of negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons, as the president has asked Congress to hold off on new rounds of sanctions to let the diplomatic process play out. Cruz said Iran is the single greatest threat to the United States. The two senators, both Cuban-American, also disagree with the administration’s moves to normalize relations with the country.

Of course, Paul stood out from the group on these topics, arguing to “give diplomacy a chance” on Iran and calling opponents of the new Cuba policy isolationists for not wanting to economically engage with other countries. Paul and Rubio have been sparring over Cuba since the change was announced, with the senator from Florida accusing the senator from Kentucky of being a “cheerleader” for Obama’s foreign policy.

Paul’s mode of operation since entering the Senate four years ago has been more philosophy orientated, awakening the party’s libertarian mind that resonates especially well with war-weary young people who want the government to leave them alone.

“We don’t believe there is a monopoly when it comes to how to govern and do things in politics,” says one Paul aide. Allies point to the fact that Paul has been in the Senate a little longer than Obama was before running for president, and he had a successful career as an ophthalmologist before that. (Paul and Rubio were sworn into the Senate in 2011, Cruz in 2013.) “It’s one of those things that is outside experience, which is lacking a lot of time,” the aide said. “There’s a big difference between a community organizer and someone who has been a doctor for 20 years.”

Like Cruz and Rubio, Paul has found that being a senator can have advantages, if handled the right way. For example, in 2013, Paul got lots of attention and public support for a 12-hour filibuster in protest of the administration’s drone policy. Later that year, Cruz adopted the same approach, speaking on the Senate floor for 21 hours in opposition to Obamacare.

Cruz received support from his base when he led an effort to shut down the government over the funding of the health care law. For Cruz, his reputation as a fighter no matter the cost to his party is a foundation for a possible presidential bid.

“I think the relevant question is not what particular job an individual has had but whether he or she has stood up and led on the major issues of the day,” Cruz told RCP. “Republicans should nominate a candidate who has demonstrated that he or she will fight for conservative principles, for free market principles, for our constitutional liberties, for restoring America’s leadership in the world.”

The Senate gives these presidential hopefuls a platform to appeal to people and turn their ideas into legislation, regardless of whether it moves through the chamber. This week, for example, Paul introduced legislation to audit the Federal Reserve, something he has been talking about on the stump. Cruz and Rubio have also signed on. Paul has also made criminal justice reform and tax repatriation top legislative goals that are bipartisan and might happen to help him connect with voters. The senator also has the benefit of having Kentucky colleague and the new Senate majority leader mindful of his interests, after Paul helped consolidate support for Mitch McConnell’s re-election bid last year.

As much as the Senate can help these men burnish their expertise, the legislative process can often prove messy and harmful. Rubio learned this through his work on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate only to be despised by the House and party conservatives. Rubio has said he learned from the experience that people are wary of massive and complicated pieces of legislation. The Florida senator has been gearing up for a presidential run, traveling the country and raising money, and talking about economic mobility and foreign policy, positioning himself as a fresh-faced ideas candidate in a field of old names.

“Obviously, I’ve only been in the Senate now for four years and two months, but I’ve certainly been very engaged in the national security and foreign policy debates,” Rubio told reporters last week when he was asked about the governors-versus-senators debate. “That is the predominant obligation of the federal government, to provide for our national security and to conduct the foreign policy of the United States. And I feel very comfortable discussing and debating that with any of the potential candidates or anyone else who might want to be president.”

Rubio is on a well-timed book tour that will take him through the early states and keep him in the spotlight. He skipped Senate votes this week for fundraising in California, which also underscores the challenge McConnell might face this year in collecting key votes if several members of his caucus are running for president.

Moving directly from the Senate to the White House is historically rare. Only three presidents have done it. Before Obama it was John F. Kennedy, and Warren Harding before him.

“In each case, they were relatively junior senators, not committee chairmen, not floor leaders, no long track record,” says Donald Ritchie, the historian of the U.S. Senate. Unlike governors or other kinds of presidential candidates, senators have to register their opinion on something nearly every day in the form of votes.

“Every time they cast a vote, they, in a sense, narrow their base,” Ritchie says. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote in support of the Iraq War, for example, created an opening for Obama who was not in the Senate then but railed against it and tapped into voter sentiment inside and outside of his party.

In the cases of Rubio, Paul, and Cruz, “Their positions are so fixed on most issues, it’s not like they have broadened their base, but rather defined their base very precisely along the way.”

The bigger challenge for this group isn’t merely that they are senators (after all, Republicans nominated John McCain in 2008) and not governors, but it’s the perceived lack of requisite experience Republicans say they want next time around.

With that in mind, the first-termers are in a tight spot. If they stay longer in the Senate to gain more experience — maybe run a committee or get a big bill with their name on it signed — they risk becoming too much a part of Washington. If they leave and opt to run later for governor of their states, which some believe to be a strong option for Rubio, they risk missing the moment of opportunity. The field is wide open this time around, the first contest the GOP has had in a while without a clear frontrunner.

In 2008, Obama ran as a post-partisan figure who could bridge the divides in Washington and around the country. He got people to see him as more than a senator. Obama’s first campaign was unique in many ways. His election was also, of course, historic. Candidates would have a difficult time emulating it. But that post-partisan eventually met up with reality, and Obama has been criticized from the right and the left for not engaging with Congress and forging the relationships necessary to strike important deals.

“The challenge that [the freshmen senators] have is there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse where they’ve seen two terms of President Obama,” says Madden. “Obama mastered the rhetoric of it, and people bought into it, but we’ve seen over the last two terms they lose faith in his ability to execute on that.”

That’s not to say it can’t be done. And Rubio, Paul, and Cruz each defied expectations before in their first Senate bids. To be successful, GOP strategists say, they will have to have a much more detailed approach than Obama did when it comes to politics and policy.

Their Senate careers, however young they may be, won’t be the main features of their campaigns. Instead, they may use it as a helpful foundation or even, at times, a foil, but they are hoping it won’t be a defining factor.

While governors are using their offices as big selling points for their potential candidacies, the senators are likely to position themselves in ways that create some distance from Washington. There is a long way to go before Republicans pick their nominee, and no one has officially declared his candidacy. But the 2016 GOP primary is already shaping up to be a race between the party’s governors and senators.  

James Arkin contributed to this report.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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