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ICYMI: On Eve Of Major Foreign Policy Speech, CQ Magazine Profiles Rubio

Sep 12, 2011 | Blog

Tea Party Favorite Bucks Isolationism

By Emily Cadei, Congressional Quarterly


Marco Rubio was the last in the current crop of freshman senators to deliver his maiden speech. When he finally took the floor, the Republican from South Florida sounded a very different note than the 12 GOP freshmen who spoke before him.

Where others focused exclusively on the domestic economy — the size of the U.S. debt, the need for a balanced-budget amendment, their opposition to raising taxes — Rubio chose a global theme, offering his vision for America’s role in the world in the 21st century.

This week, Rubio will expand on that theme with a speech at the Jesse Helms Center in North Carolina that is intended to be a full-throated defense of American engagement overseas, even at a time of belt tightening at home. Rubio says he believes its important to account to people why it is “essential” for the United States to “spend money and risk lives on foreign policy.”

In particular, Rubio says he will reinforce the importance of promoting democracy. “We don’t always agree with other democracies but very rarely do we find ourselves fighting them,” he says

This kind of rhetoric on U.S. policy abroad certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of a politician who rode to office in 2010 on the backs of tea party activists — upsetting a popular governor along the way — and who embodies in many ways the new generation of fiscal conservatives in Congress.

But Rubio seems intent on carving out a path distinct from many others in the Class of 2010. Through his high-profile speeches, as well as his legislative collaborations with senior senators and daily work on the Foreign Relations and Select Intelligence panels, he is emerging as a fresh GOP voice on foreign policy. In doing so, he is contradicting the notion that the tea party is synonymous with international isolationism. And he is challenging the narrative that his party, as a whole, is headed in that same direction.

At first glance, Rubio did not appear to be the most likely freshman Republican to take a leading role on foreign policy. Entering the 112th Congress, there were several newly elected senators with far more experience in international affairs than the 40-year-old lawyer and former state legislator.


Global View

But while other new members passed over the Foreign Relations Committee for posts on Appropriations, Commerce or other panels with more home-state relevance, Rubio embraced the chance to develop his foreign policy chops and has quickly become one of the panel’s most active GOP members.

“I am a big believer that very little of what happens in our daily lives is not directly influenced by things that are happening around the world,” Rubio explains. “We’re not Liechtenstein; we’re not Monaco; we’re the United States. So our interests are found globally everywhere.”

“The world needs a strong, decisive America as much as ever,” he adds.

Rubio has not been shy in pushing for that sort of muscular foreign policy approach. In hearings, he has been an outspoken voice for intervention in Libya ever since the anti-government protesters first began clashing with dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces over the winter.

Rubio aggressively questioned Undersecretary of State William Burns in a March hearing on what he called the Obama administration’s “troubling” response to the rising violence within the country.

“Is the message that we’re sending that when future conflicts arise, the United States’ actions are difficult to predict? There may be none? That, basically, the way to repress and bring down resistance like this is to be brutal? What are we going to do if there’s a bloodbath after this?” Rubio asked, his voice rising.

The freshman senator has toned down his rhetoric since that hearing, opting for a more constructive, statesman-like demeanor in the Foreign Relations Committee. But his policy views have remained aggressive, and he has continued to advance them with allies — of any stripe — that he can find in the chamber.

On Libya, that led him to support a push by established hawks such as independent Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican John McCain of Arizona, as well as with Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts, for a resolution to authorize the use of American military force.

On the unrest in Syria, where the Obama administration has moved cautiously in pressuring strongman Bashar al-Assad, Rubio teamed with Lieberman to introduce a resolution calling for tougher sanctions on the Assad regime. And he and the self-described “three amigos” — Lieberman, McCain and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham — have joined together over the last few months to applaud steps the president has taken, while urging further action.

“He’s good to work with, he’s smart, he’s very articulate” and “he has strong ideals,” Lieberman says of Rubio, whom he first got to know during visits to Florida when Rubio was in the state legislature.

Rubio also has a platform to voice his hard-line views on rapprochement with Cuba — the son of Cuban-American immigrants opposes the efforts the White House has made to improve relations — and other issues affecting Latin America with his post as ranking member on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.


Independent Streak

Rubio says he hasn’t looked to any particular lawmakers for guidance on foreign affairs, but rather has made an effort to work with other members who share his interests in particular issues and regions.

“I’m on this Helsinki Commission, which is all the senators that care about human rights, and that’s something that I care about,” he says. Regarding the Americas, Rubio points to Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, and his Florida colleague, Democrat Bill Nelson, as members who share an interest in the region.

“The thing I like most about Marco, quite frankly, is that he seeks out his colleagues for advice and counsel,” says Graham, who traveled with Rubio to Afghanistan this year. “He’s not a know-it-all. He’s very humble.”

Rubio, however, was quick to add, “I’m forming my own opinions on a lot of these issues, too.”

One area where Rubio has diverged drastically from his fellow tea party freshmen is on spending on international affairs.

Funding for aid to the developing world is a particularly easy target for budget cutters on Capitol Hill these days. The argument offered by many fiscal conservatives is that, given the U.S. debt crisis, America simply can’t afford to spend billions of dollars on programs to combat world hunger, food shortages or direct aid to foreign countries.

Rubio, however, is the rare Republican who publicly defends U.S. foreign aid spending.

In an online video response to a constituent question, Rubio laid out his case. The United States has to “be more careful about how we spend foreign aid,” Rubio acknowledged, but “if it’s done right, it spreads America’s influence around the world in a positive way.”

“I think sometimes, in the press and in the minds of many, our foreign aid is exaggerated. It really is a miniscule part of our overall budget. And it’s not the reason why we have this growing debt in America,” he said, instead pointing to entitlement programs.


The View From Florida

Those sort of positions may not resonate with all of Rubio’s base, but that doesn’t make them bad politics.

Rubio’s home state of Florida is an ethnic melting pot — more than 18 percent of residents are foreign-born. “Florida as much as any state in the country is impacted by what happens” overseas, both economically and culturally, Rubio says.

So far, University of South Florida government professor Susan MacManus says, Rubio’s rhetoric on foreign policy is not “really registering a whole lot” among Florida voters, but, she added, “for those who follow him and are watching him, I think the linkage in all of it is his belief in freedom and democracy.” However, she adds, some Florida tea party members may eventually “have a falling out with him over expenditures abroad.”

MacManus also notes that while Rubio was embraced as a tea party candidate in 2010 “and they certainly liked him over the other ones,” he “has always been careful about not being 100 percent in sync with what people think of as the tea party.” He doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, MacManus says, in a sign of his political savvy.

That skill, as well as Rubio’s ability to appeal to key demographics, have put him atop the list of potential 2012 Republican vice presidential nominees. He denies any interest in a place on the GOP ticket and defers questions about future presidential races, but building up foreign policy credentials is traditionally a good move for an aspirant for national office.

With a wide spectrum of lawmakers staking out positions on the economy and government spending, moreover, international affairs offers Rubio a platform in a party suddenly searching for its voice on the issue. Many of the politicians who have been the GOP’s standard-bearers on the issue have recently retired or, like Jon Kyl of Arizona, are retiring in 2012. Others, such as McCain and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations panel, have struggled to connect with younger Republicans.

And there are few leaders in the pipeline, at least on Capitol Hill, where Senate Republicans consider the Foreign Relations panel an “A” committee that precludes service on another choice panel such as Appropriations.

Lugar has often lamented the considerable turnover on the Foreign Relations panel and the resulting dearth of foreign policy experts in the GOP caucus. “For example, I’m the senior member on the Republican side,” Lugar said recently. Tennessee’s Bob Corker “is second, and he’s in his first term. It just gives some indication.”

Rubio says he is committed to the panel for the long haul. “You’ll see me on there for a while if they let me stay,” he jokes.

That sort of dedication earns plaudits from Lieberman. “At this moment when everybody is so focused on domestic matters,” he says, Rubio “makes room for America’s role in the world. . . I think he’s got a great future here, and maybe beyond here.”