Marco Rubio had just stepped off the plane from his first visit to Cuba, the homeland of his forebears, a land at the heart of his political identity.
Did he at least bring back a souvenir?
“No,” he said Tuesday evening.
No sand? No water? No rocks?
“No,” he smiled.
For Rubio, who traveled to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base as a member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, the trip was all business. And that’s pretty typical for the Republican freshmen senator, according to colleagues like Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry and Rubio’s fellow foreign-policy hawk Sen. Joe Lieberman.
“Marco’s not a show horse,” Lieberman said. “He’s a workhorse.”
One day he’ll be giving a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington or the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Thursday. Next, he’ll be lugging Henry Kissinger’s “Diplomacy” tome to a Munich conference, stopping along the way in Madrid to chat with Spain’s prime minister in Spanish as his unilingual Anglo colleagues twiddle their thumbs. He also has travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malta, Libya, Haiti and Colombia.
The nation’s political chattering class focuses most heavily on Rubio as a vice-presidential shortlister, but his Senate colleagues can’t help but talk about him becoming a key foreign-policy player as a member of the intelligence and foreign-relations committees.
Lieberman and Kerry are Senate experts both in foreign policy and running in a presidential election. Kerry was the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2004; Lieberman the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate in 2000 before becoming an independent.
Both say Rubio is able to handle the rigors of the national campaign trail and the Senate at the same time.
“I’ve been impressed by his thinking — doing the homework necessary to earn the credibility with respect to your approach to things. I think that’s constructive,” Kerry said.
“A lot of the colleagues around here, obviously, are interested in substance and interested in people who do the work and are not impressed by people who are prone to play the political end of something and hold a press conference and not do the work,” Kerry said. “They want to see someone buckle down and learn the ropes. And I think he’s clearly been doing that in a very positive way.”
Rubio, though, still adheres to the party line.
His praise of President Obama is sparse — even amid seeming foreign-policy triumphs like the overthrow and death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October. At the time, Rubio and other Republicans gave Obama relatively little credit.
“Let’s give credit where credit is due: it’s the French and the British that led on this fight,” Rubio, echoing the Republican Party line, said at the time in a video clip mocked by The Daily Show’s John Stewart, who essentially accused Rubio and others of being neither gracious nor statesman like.
Asked Stewart: “What the f--- is wrong with you people? Are you that small?”
When asked about the lampooning on the popular liberal comedy show, Rubio said he stood by his criticisms, which were aimed more at Obama for not acting more quickly and decisively.
“The fact the U.S. didn’t take a leading role long enough meant the conflict went longer, cost more lives, destroyed more infrastructure and ultimately has created a set of problems now,” Rubio said.
“I doubt the Daily Show is the place for those kinds of nuances.”
Rubio’s foreign policy isn’t subtle. It’s hawkish, neoconservative and revolves around the belief that America is a force for good that shouldn’t be ashamed to achieve peace through firepower superiority or checkbook diplomacy.
He prefers to talk about how the United States spread democracy and rebuilt Japan and South Korea after World War II. He spends little time talking about the failures.
And he wants America to stay in Afghanistan until it’s more stable — an expensive proposition that, after a decade of U.S. involvement, may be as elusive as ever. He also supports the Cuba embargo, which has failed to topple the Castro family’s dictatorial de facto monarchy that has survived the terms of 11 U.S. presidents.
Later this month, Rubio will release his much-anticipated autobiography, An American Son, which is to detail his family’s emigration and exile from Cuba in 1956. The book will undoubtedly be more sentimental than his trip to Guantanamo, after which he batted down speculation about burnishing his foreign-policy cred for political purposes. Many members of Congress have returned from Guantanamo clutching souvenir tri-folded flags that flew at the base, or ballcaps that say Guantanamo. Rubio didn’t.
Rubio said that, while foreign heads of state and politicians, bash the United States publicly, their tone changes in private.
“They’re begging for U.S. influence and leadership,” he said. “They’re not threatened by us. They’re not scared of us. They’re not worried about the United States being involved because we have a track record.”
That feeling was reinforced “by driving through the streets of Tripoli and seeing pro-American graffiti on the walls. Of having people come up to me on the streets and thank the United States – thank you America for what you did – by the enthusiastic greeting we received in the hospital that we visited or people we met people in the square.”
Rubio travelled there in September, before Gadhafi was killed, with senators John McCain and Lieberman, who also accompanied Rubio in February to Munich and Spain, where they met Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey.
“When it got to Marco he began engaging in conversation with the prime minister in Spanish,” Lieberman said. “I was impressed.”
Months later, in April, Lieberman introduced Rubio in his foreign-policy coming-out speech at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution — a perfect forum for the freshman senator to stoke speculation about a vice-presidential bid, while showcasing his foreign policy chops and his bipartisan bonafides.
Though Rubio at one point misplaced the last page of his speech — an accident mocked by liberal commentators — Lieberman said he was blown away by Rubio’s ability to opine thoughtfully on affairs from Haiti to Iran to Afghanistan
“This wasn’t someone just reading a speech,” he said. “He knew the subject matter.”
Lieberman said he sees Rubio rapidly becoming part of a new “deep bench” of foreign policy experts in the Republican caucus, especially after it lost Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, who was just ousted in a primary tea-party rout. Lieberman said Rubio is “unique.”
But, in some ways, Rubio’s retracing the steps of Hillary Clinton, who arrived to the Senate a rookie but as a rock-star politician. She’s now the ultimate foreign-policy official: secretary of state. Like Clinton, Rubio blended into the Senate for the first few months in office, shied away from the spotlight and immersed himself in his work.
Just after the Brookings speech, Rubio joined with Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania to author a resolution condemning the atrocities in Syria. Rubio, Lieberman said, helped overcome Republican objections. Case said in a written statement that he was happy with the “bipartisan effort” against Syria and Iran.
“While we disagree on many issues,” Casey, a fellow foreign relations committee member, said, “he has welcomed the opportunity to work together in a bipartisan way on these critical national security issues.”
As evidenced by the written statement, Casey was far more hesitant to discuss his Republican colleague in an interview. Other Democratic senators weren’t willing to comment at all about the man who could be the number two on the opposition ticket.
Still, Rubio has a strong working relationship with fellow Florida Sen. and intelligence committee member Bill Nelson, who faces a tough reelection. And Kerry and Lieberman said Rubio seems ready to be on this year’s ballot as well.
"If you’re up to it, I don’t think there’s pressure,” Kerry said. “I think he’s handling it well. I don’t see any sign that it’s pressure.”