Over the last 65 years, three Democrats — John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — captured the presidency by running as candidates of generational change against the political status quo.
But in 2016, those dynamics could be reversed. Democrats are poised to nominate a 67-year-old veteran of 25 years in national politics, giving Republicans the opportunity to take similar advantage of the fact that voters tend to favor the future over the past, especially when unhappy with current circumstances.
Many prospective GOP hopefuls, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are so reflexively conservative they may have difficulty taking advantage of the chance Hillary Clinton’s prospective candidacy affords. Others, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are close to her age. But two Republicans appear to have the potential to assume that generational cutting edge role by appealing beyond the GOP base: Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky libertarian who declared his candidacy Tuesday, and Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Cuban-American who plans his announcement next week.
More than their rivals and despite some recent policy backtracking, Paul, 52, and Rubio, 44, could offer a potent combination of political heft, youthful energy and unique appeal.
Paul, calling himself “a different kind of Republican” in an introductory video, combined standard conservative positions with libertarian rhetoric in Tuesday’s announcement. He vowed to stop “the Washington machine that gobbles up our freedom and invades every nook and cranny of our lives,” urged congressional term limits and a balanced budget amendment and decried “unnecessary intervention” abroad and “unconstitutional surveillance” at home.
In recent years, he has differed from other leading Republicans by showing less enthusiasm for a muscular foreign policy and greater interest in reaching out to traditionally non-Republican groups, especially African-Americans, though he has expressed concerns about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
During last year’s racially charged demonstrations, Paul went to Ferguson, Mo., to meet with young African-Americans and criticized the “militarization” of many local police forces. He has talked with students at several predominantly black colleges and advocated criminal justice reform.
While tempering the anti-interventionist views of his outspoken father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, he remains less enthusiastic than most Republicans about an aggressive U.S. role in the volatile Middle East and upset many conservatives by including Israel in proposing to eliminate foreign aid, a stance he later modified.
Unlike his rivals, Paul was noticeably silent during last week’s controversy over religious freedom legislation in Indiana and Arkansas, a possibly beneficial general election stance that could create real primary and caucus problems with social conservatives, including in the Iowa base inherited from his father.
Rubio, by contrast, offers the GOP a different face by heritage and image more than by ideology, much like Barack Obama gave the Democrats in 2008. As the Party’s first significant Hispanic candidate, the Florida senator would provide an opening to the 54 million Hispanics whom Republicans have long coveted but failed to attract.
Polls indicate two-thirds of the 17 million Hispanic voters consider themselves pro-Democratic, though the GOP fares better with Florida’s Cuban-Americans.
Rubio’s potential appeal to the larger non-Florida Hispanic community, which is predominantly Mexican-American, was complicated when he back-pedaled from supporting the bipartisan immigration reform bill the Senate passed in 2013 and opposed Obama’s decision to protect 5 million illegal immigrants.
Rubio’s positions reflect the GOP norm more closely than Paul’s. And he faces political barriers, including the candidacy of fellow Floridian Bush and the lack of any natural base in early primary and caucus states.
To some extent, every GOP prospect — including Paul and Rubio — faces potential general election problems because of ideological positions that seem to epitomize the country’s past more than its future, a divide underscored by generational Republican divisions over gay marriage.
It won’t be easy for either to negotiate the primary process. But their potential appeal beyond the party’s base offers Republicans two ways to take advantage of the generational opportunity that Clinton’s candidacy presents.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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