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Known unknowns: Marco Rubio’s unanswerable dilemma

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If you believe the most recent rumblings, Marco Rubio has decided to take his chances and make a run for the White House, damn the torpedoes — and Jeb Bush. Though early polls have Bush and Scott Walker way out in front of him, recent history shows that an exciting, up-and-coming U.S. Senator with a hot hand can defy the odds and become the president, a fact Rubio has surely noted. But his analysis of those particular tea leaves may lead him astray, writes Paul Waldman in The Week:

If you’re wondering why Rubio might think he has a shot, look no further than the current occupant of the White House. When Barack Obama started seriously considering running for president in 2008, the conventional wisdom held that the notion was ridiculous. Someone who had been in Washington less than four years, with only a couple of bills to his name? How could he be so presumptuous?

But Obama — whose career has been marked by long periods of caution punctuated by audacious risk-taking — recognized his own talents, and the fact that the moment was perfect for a candidate like him. And for all that Republicans may think he was unprepared and inexperienced, they’ve assimilated the idea that there’s nothing wrong with a candidate like Obama seeking the nation’s highest office. This year there are three Republican senators in their first terms who will be running — Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz — and though they each have admirers and detractors in the Republican Party, nobody’s saying they haven’t put in enough time in subcommittee hearings.

… [T]he senators who today decide to make a run for the presidency are the ones who just got there and can’t seem to wait to get out.

But there’s still that old chestnut about “executive experience” that seems to ring true, especially among Republicans, which explains in part why Bush and Walker are doubling up Rubio in the polls. Though Obama’s rise suggests the influence of that line of thinking is waning, Rubio will have to come up with a more compelling account of just why he’s the man for the job than ‘I’ve been a Senator for six years,’:

Governors still get the benefit of the doubt as potential presidential candidates, on the assumption that leading a state is a lot like leading the country, so they will have accumulated the skills and experience to do the job well. But if we no longer think that time in Washington — learning about national and international issues, being around in times of crisis, coming to know how the government works and how it can be mobilized to one’s ends — is all that important, what are we looking for in a president? Is it a job that requires a kind of abstract skill set, which we might not be able to define, but we know it when we see it?

Rubio knows only too well that there’s an element of chance involved in both his run for president as well as in the way it would work out if he were to occupy the Oval Office. It’s the classic American question: what would Tom do if he were to actually catch Jerry? No one can be sure:

Today, liberals look at Barack Obama’s careful weighing of options and unwillingness to go off half-cocked as a strength, keeping him calm while those around him are saying we should all freak out (remember when there was going to be an Ebola epidemic in the United States?). Conservatives see the same trait as fatal indecisiveness.

Likewise, those in both parties could point to candidates who were amply experienced, but who would have (or did) make bad presidents. You know who had lots of experience in government before becoming president? Richard Nixon. Which, of course, tells us nothing about what sort of president someone like Marco Rubio would be. But it’s a reminder of how hard it is to predict what’s really going to matter to the next presidency.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at

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