Marco Rubio and the Republican Elite

Wielding national political power without elite support is a pipe dream

Marco Rubio seems to be the breakout star of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the yearly gathering of right-wing activists and politicians in Washington, D.C. Rubio, whose challenge to Charlie Crist in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat from Florida seems to gain steam every week, delivered the conference’s keynote address on Thursday and, according to The Washington Post, “enthralled” the crowd there with his “assault” on the Obama administration’s policies. Politico, meanwhile, dubbed him the “belle of the CPAC ball,” and noted that Rubio wasn’t there just to speechify: he also had several fundraising events lined up during his time in D.C., including one sponsored by a powerhouse lobbying group and another hosted by GOP luminaries Mary Matalin, J.C. Watts, and Liz Cheney.

It’s shaping up to be such a fab few days for Rubio, in fact, that some observers are wondering whether the conference might be too much of a good thing. After all, while CPAC’s long been positioned at the right edge of the Republican establishment, it is part of the establishment. Rubio’s rise, meanwhile, has been fueled by support from self-identified Tea Party supporters, who are drawn not just to his conservative politics but the air of insurgency that infuses his campaign. (Back before most people had heard of Scott Brown’s pickup truck, The New York Times Magazine put Rubio on its cover, asking if he might become “the first Senator from the Tea Party.”) In a piece published just before the conference began, The Miami Herald focused on this apparent contradiction:

At the same time, Rubio’s new status presents new challenges. How will he continue to pitch himself as a political outsider—the quality that made him a star on the anti-establishment tea-party circuit—even as he picks up congressional endorsements and raises many with the Washington elite?

This is not idle speculation. One Tea Party activist from Florida tells the Herald that “people raise their eyebrows” when they see Rubio rubbing elbows with the Republican elite; another says flatly that “If he keeps going after bigger contributors and Washington-as-usual, he’s going to lose his base very quickly.” This sort of talk coincides with a recurring theme from the reporting about the Tea Party movement: its supporters are almost militantly grassroots, and are ever wary about being co-opted or sold out. (Sarah Palin was playing to this sensitivity when she conspicuously skipped CPAC, telling Politico through an associate that the conference places “special interests over core beliefs” and “pocketbook over policy.”)

But while the question the Herald is posing makes sense, it’s important not to overestimate the challenge Rubio faces. True, he will have to find a way to build relationships with the GOP’s inside-the-Beltway contingent while maintaining his appeal to the Tea Party base. But that’s what any Republican would have to do to rise to national prominence in the current environment. The fact that it’s the task before Rubio now is much more an opportunity than a crisis.

For all the attention rightly being paid to the Tea Party uprising, the idea of wielding national political power without elite support is a pipe dream. And, given that the United States has a durable and entrenched two-party system, “elite support” means the institutional backing of one of the two major parties. Political insurgencies, when they achieve lasting significance (and many don’t), don’t overthrow that system. Instead, they join it, and try to nudge it in their favor.

In fact, that’s exactly the process that gave rise to CPAC in the first place. Politico’s Ken Vogel, who has done stellar work sketching out the institutional relationships between different factions of the right-wing world, highlighted this history in a story Thursday on the “new conservative order.” Many of the groups that have become CPAC stalwarts, Vogel writes:

were formed by the last wave of activists to remake the conservative movement: the mostly young disciples of the GOP’s libertarian-leaning 1964 presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. That movement also had its origins in the grass roots beyond the Beltway, but its activists flocked to Washington after their efforts culminated in the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. And many of them stayed.

By staying, of course, they became part of the establishment, shaping the Republican Party for decades and, during the Bush years, becoming tainted by association. To some Tea Party supporters, apparently, this sounds like a story of failure. But it looks a lot more substantial when measured against the record of the activists who didn’t stay—and, in terms of national politics, were never heard from again.

There’s an irony, of course, in the one-time newcomers now being derided as out-of-touch establishment types. But if the Tea Party movement does want to turn this efflorescence of activity into lasting influence, its members will have to chart the same course followed that earlier wave of activists, finding a way to work within existing networks of political power more often than against them.

There’s evidence that this is happening at the local level, where Tea Party supporters are learning the ropes, figuring out how to exert influence through county committees and the like. At the national level, where the competition for influence is fiercer, there’s an opportunity for an ambitious politician who can serve as a facilitator. It’s a role that might naturally filled by an “outsider” champion who understands the value of “insiders,” and thus knows how to reap support from both camps—someone, perhaps, like Marco Rubio.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.