The likely 2016 GOP hopeful grabs the mic on Cuba.
It was Marco Rubio’s chance, and he pounced on it.
A day after fellow Floridian Jeb Bush announced he’s seriously exploring a presidential run — dampening Rubio’s 2016 prospects — the senator took back the spotlight by emerging as the face of GOP opposition to the White House’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba.
“Absurd,” the Republican called the Cuba plans during a spot on Fox News, one of more than a dozen television appearances he made Wednesday. “This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, based on a lie,” he said in a special press conference.
Bush and several other likely White House contenders also weighed in Wednesday, blasting Obama’s actions as more evidence of a weak and naive foreign policy. But with his wall-to-wall media presence, legislative threats and fiery written statement, Rubio clearly dominated the backlash. Even incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deferred to Rubio’s leadership on the issue when asked about it.
Rubio’s allies say his fury over the new Cuba policy is genuine. The 43-year-old is the son of Cuban immigrants and an ardent, longtime opponent of the communist Castro regime in Havana.
But Rubio’s actions were also smart politics for a man who may run for president, especially after a news cycle dominated by speculation about how Bush’s announcement could shape the GOP primary field and affect donors’ calculations.
With his push on Cuba, Rubio is back on the radar and out of Bush’s shadow, at least for now. His aggressive stance also could boost him in Florida, a critical early primary state in presidential years that is home to a still-powerful Cuban-American community.
“Marco is the one person who is uniquely qualified to offer the principled, proper perspective on this thing,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Florida Republican strategist who noted the personal nature of Rubio’s anger. “He has been on fire all day about this, all guns blazing.”
Rubio, who aligns with the hawkish wing of the GOP, has not yet said if he will run for president, and his spokesman insisted this week that Bush’s decision won’t affect Rubio’s. The senator has a book coming out in January titled “American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone.”
Rubio has previously found himself in the national spotlight for his work on comprehensive immigration reform as well his 2013 delivery of the Republican response to the State of the Union address, which was best remembered for an awkward moment in which he paused to drink some water.
At one time, taking a hardline position on Cuba was a given for a Republican candidate, but its implications nowadays are not so clear in a general election, or even a primary.
Younger voters, including younger Cubans, don’t necessarily share their parents’ and grandparents’ views on Havana. Some polls show younger Cuban-Americans overwhelmingly favor an end to the embargo, but a Florida International University survey from June found that 51 percent of registered Cuban-American voters oppose that.
The White House’s actions don’t officially lift the embargo, because that would require Congress’ approval, but they do allow for diplomatic ties and the easing of restrictions on travel, remittances and other exchanges.
Many American business leaders are in favor of improving the U.S.-Cuba relationship; the GOP-aligned U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, issued a statement welcoming the White House’s move as a victory for free enterprise.
The emerging GOP 2016 field isn’t entirely unified on foreign policy in the first place, with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, most notably, favoring a smaller U.S. footprint overseas. And Bush could face some tough questions about his views after his brother, former President George W. Bush, presided over the deeply unpopular war in Iraq.
Still, political strategists and others feel the Cuba issue remains a potent weapon against Democrats, most clearly in the Sunshine State. And in the Republican primary there, it’s a litmus test.
“Cuban-American voters are important in any election in the state of Florida, but in the Republican primary, they are especially important,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, the head of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, who was livid over the White House’s announcement.
For the most part, the potential GOP 2016 contenders used the White House decision to blast President Barack Obama.
“We have seen how previous Obama administration attempts at rapprochement with rogue regimes like Russia and Iran have worked out, with our influence diminished and our enemies emboldened,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father is from Cuba, said in a statement.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal weighed in on Twitter with references to the leaders of Syria and Russia: “Ruthless dictators like Assad, Putin and Castro think Obama is an easy mark and will be sorry to see him go.”
And Bush, a former Florida governor, talked to local reporters Wednesday morning and by the afternoon, had posted a statement on Facebook condemning Obama’s “dramatic overreach.”
“It undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba,” he wrote. “The benefactors of President Obama’s ill-advised move will be the heinous Castro brothers who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades.
Noticeably silent was Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Other potential 2016 GOP contenders who didn’t offer immediate reactions included New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Rubio, for his part, not only bashed the Obama administration, but also promised to use his position as a senator to stop its actions. The Floridian will chair the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs, giving him a major voice on Cuba policy.
He suggested that Congress, both Houses of which will be controlled by Republicans in just weeks, could try to stop funding for the planned U.S. Embassy in Havana, or seek to derail the nomination of an ambassador to the island nation.
Mac Stipanovich, who worked on Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns, said this week is only a prelude to the back-and-forth between Bush and Rubio, but that this issue, for Rubio, is “low-hanging fruit” — and he smartly seized it.
“You can’t hurt yourself with Florida Republican primary voters to be pro-embargo and anti-Castro,” Stipanovich added. “But I don’t know how much this will matter in Iowa or New Hampshire.”
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and likely Democratic frontrunner, has previously expressed interest in pulling back the embargo, and on Wednesday night issued a statement in support of “increased U.S. engagement.” Other long-shot potential 2016 Democrats, including former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) backed the White House’s actions Wednesday.
Strategists noted that Clinton’s past statements, and her deep ties to the administration, could mean she will find herself under heavy attack by Republicans over the new Cuba policy. Already on Wednesday, the Republican super PAC America Rising had already launched a page called “Obama Adopts Clinton Policy On Cuba.”
“This will create a tremendous depth of intensity about the Cuba issue that hasn’t been there the last couple cycles,” said former Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican whom Rubio succeeded in the Senate. “There can be a latency about this issue until something like this happens and then it jolts you into, ‘Wow.’”